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The US Political System: a recipe for gridlock?


Shqiptar

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In the Irish political system, we have a government which exercises all executive and legislative control. When we elect them, we're basically handing to them the power to do what they want for as long as they're in power which can last for up to 5 years. We also have a president whose powers are far more limited.

It might not be perfect but it means that when the people vote a party or parties into power, those party/parties receive a genuine mandate to effect change.

In the US system, the president has far more powers including the power to veto a bill. The Senate and House of Representatives can also shoot down proposals from the president. Once upon a time, both houses were almost always controlled by the same party that controlled the White House. Between the start of the 20th century and the end of Lyndon Johnson's reign, one party or the other controlled the whole federal government -- the White House and both houses of Congress -- for 54 of 68 years, about 80 percent of the time. So there was little friction between the centres of power.

Since then, the USA has had one-party government for just 14 of 44 years, less than one-third of the time. These days, at any given time, the president is likely to be from one party whilst one or both Houses are controlled by the other party. As if this in itself wasn't enough to guarantee the sort of legislative deadock that we see over the fiscal cliff issue, consider the fact that congress is now more partisan than it used to be. Whether it's the environment, gay marriage or "Obamacare", Republicans and Democrats just have a lot less to agree on these days.

Like almost every developed country, the USA faces major fiscal and demographic challenges. Yet, its founding fathers seem to have bequeathed to 21st century Americans a system that puts far more emphasis on checks and balances than on taking critical decisions.

Sources.
1. How the Congress Became More Partisan - Infographics
2. Eric Black: U.S. or Parliamentary System? One Is Nearly Gridlock-Proof -- and It Ain't Ours
3. Our role in America's political divide | StarTribune.com
4. The dysfunction that lies at the very heart of American politics | Michael A Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer
 
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kerdasi amaq

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"Gridlock", that means that the system is working properly.

Politicians who can do nothing are the safest form of political pondscum.
 

SJMcMahon

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Kerdasi brings up a good point. The whole point of our system of checks and balances is to prevent power from being too concentrated in any one branch of the federal government. It's a balancing act between the federal executive branch, the federal courts, Congress and the state governments. Bare in mind, our country was designed to be more a relationship between the states and the federal government than one of the federal government and the people. I'd truly hate to have any one party dominate the federal government. I'd hate for either the Democrats or the Republicans to have some rubber stamp Congress to pass any far-reaching legislation that they wish.
 

titmouse

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It's better than a system where 51% of the electorate decide who the dictator will be for five years - or in the British case about 40% of the electorate.
 

NYCKY

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The USA is both a federal and a continental country so I don't think a parliamentary system would be effective. I think the checks and balances are good, George W Bush was deeply unpopular for the last two years of his Presidency and he been a Prime Minister he would have quickly been dumped but he had a four year term and we were stuck with him but the same system prevents a cabal of backbenchers ousting an unpopular President.

The Houses of Congress have different (but similar) functions, for instance the President only needs approval from the Senate for Cabinet and Supreme Court nominations and in the current situation the President and the majority of the Senate are from the same party. Were they not from the same party than the sitting President could alter course and nominate those more acceptable to the opposing party. Also the US politicians aren't "whipped" the same way that those in Ireland or the UK are and much more frequently vote against their own parties.

Lastly, while no system is perfect, I am concerned about the plans for the Irish political system, with the reduction in urban/county councils, the proposed abolition of the Seanad and the reduction in the number of TDs, much more power is being concentrated in the hands of fewer politicians. Not sure that this is a good thing.
 

Shqiptar

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"Gridlock", that means that the system is working properly.

Politicians who can do nothing are the safest form of political pondscum.
So politicians elected by the people should have no power?

Well then, what's the point of holding elections? And who should wield power?
 

Shqiptar

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Kerdasi brings up a good point. The whole point of our system of checks and balances is to prevent power from being too concentrated in any one branch of the federal government. It's a balancing act between the federal executive branch, the federal courts, Congress and the state governments. Bare in mind, our country was designed to be more a relationship between the states and the federal government than one of the federal government and the people. I'd truly hate to have any one party dominate the federal government. I'd hate for either the Democrats or the Republicans to have some rubber stamp Congress to pass any far-reaching legislation that they wish.
That all worked pretty well when US politics was a lot more bipartisan than it is now. Once upon a time, some GOP folks sided with some Dems and vice versa.

Now, US politics - from across the pond - looks to be at least as adversarial, perhaps much more so than European politics. Extensive checks and balances don't work in such a situation - as can be seen with the endless wrangling over fiscal problems.
 

Shqiptar

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It's better than a system where 51% of the electorate decide who the dictator will be for five years - or in the British case about 40% of the electorate.
Coalition government is very much the norm here and I'd say that the UK is heading that way too. Coalitions - by definition - provide their own implicit checks and balances.

There's another problematic aspect of the US system that virtually precludes the possibility of smaller third parties emerging to wield real power: if you're not a Democrat or a Republican, you're frozen out - frozen out by the media and from the major debates.

A slightly more fragmented party scene would make the discourse less adversarial and allow e.g. in the current fiscal cliff stand-off, other proposals to emerge that wouldn't be tainted by being seen as coming from The Other Side.
 

Dame_Enda

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The reason for gridlock is often the "cloture" rule in the Senate which requires 60 votes to even bring a measure to a vote. I have advocate the introduction of the American system here except the cloture rule. The corruption exposed in the Tribunals, and the docking of points for well-connected officials such as judges underline the necessity for this. The American confirmation process for powerful officials like judges and Cabinet minister nominations has also proved useful in weeding out ethical and policy problems with various candidates.
 

Shqiptar

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The USA is both a federal and a continental country so I don't think a parliamentary system would be effective. I think the checks and balances are good, George W Bush was deeply unpopular for the last two years of his Presidency and he been a Prime Minister he would have quickly been dumped but he had a four year term and we were stuck with him but the same system prevents a cabal of backbenchers ousting an unpopular President.

The Houses of Congress have different (but similar) functions, for instance the President only needs approval from the Senate for Cabinet and Supreme Court nominations and in the current situation the President and the majority of the Senate are from the same party. Were they not from the same party than the sitting President could alter course and nominate those more acceptable to the opposing party. Also the US politicians aren't "whipped" the same way that those in Ireland or the UK are and much more frequently vote against their own parties.

Lastly, while no system is perfect, I am concerned about the plans for the Irish political system, with the reduction in urban/county councils, the proposed abolition of the Seanad and the reduction in the number of TDs, much more power is being concentrated in the hands of fewer politicians. Not sure that this is a good thing.
You could have all the checks and balances you want within a more parliamentary system. Look at France where there is quite a balanced division of powers between parliament and the president. But stuff gets done.
 

livingstone

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It can be a recipe for gridlock, but also has an awful lot to recommend it.

People get to vote for their Head of Government directly, distinct from who they think would make better lawmakers. In a Parliamentary system, the people who will make a better law maker is not necessarily of the same party as the person who would make the best Taoiseach, nor the same party that would be the best Government. So we have to choose - do we vote for a local TD or do we vote for a national Government.

In the US, voters can do both. They choose their Senators and Representatives distinctly from choosing their President. And then they also choose separate State Government - and it always surprises me how many deeply red states have Democratic Governors or legislatures (and vice versa for Blue states).

The fact that legislators can vote without forcing an election is also attractive. The problem with the Irish system is that a loss for the Government usually means an election in which TDs risk losing their jobs. So TDs have a vested interest in supporting the executive which allows the whip system become so strong - along with the lure of Government jobs in Cabinet etc.

But there are downsides. A two year congressional term is ridiculous. Far better to elect the whole House of Representatives in off-years for four year terms (e.g. the next House would be elected in 2014 until 2018) so that mid-terms became the only election for the House, while Senators continue to be elected on a rotating basis for six year terms.
 

Shqiptar

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The reason for gridlock is often the "cloture" rule in the Senate which requires 60 votes to even bring a measure to a vote. I have advocate the introduction of the American system here except the cloture rule. The corruption exposed in the Tribunals, and the docking of points for well-connected officials such as judges underline the necessity for this. The American confirmation process for powerful officials like judges and Cabinet minister nominations has also proved useful in weeding out ethical and policy problems with various candidates.
There still is a lot to admire about the American political system. Law makers are real law makers - not merely conduits for expressions of local grievances at the national level. I suppose the federal system screens that stuff out at the state level.
 

Shqiptar

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Anyway, folks - check out the articles referred to in the OP. It's not just me who's saying this. This is from Standard & Poor's in August last year.

the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy-making and political institutions have weakened
 

TiredOfBeingTired

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Like almost every developed country, the USA faces major fiscal and demographic challenges. Yet, its founding fathers seem to have bequeathed to 21st century Americans a system that puts far more emphasis on checks and balances than on taking critical decisions.
I understand early US politics to be based on a veto for the South and (White) Southerners.

The original central government was deliberately weak.
Why?
The north had the larger population and some people (e.g. southerners) did not want that to dominate.
A weak central government would allow Southerners to control the South and in particular to protect their "special institution" - slavery.

Most of the early Presidents were Southerners and the President appoints the Supreme Court judges.
The House of Representatives was population based but not the Senate.

Obviously the 1860s Civil War changed everything...except the Constitution and Congress.
Central government became more powerful but the potential for gridlock was still there.

American politics are based, in my opinion, on a minority veto, which was originally for the South.
American politics are based, in my opinion, on a situation that no longer exists.

Not perfect but you get the North v South idea: Carpenter
Carpenter identifies Southerners as a minority by arguing that they never possessed the power to control the government, based on population. In addition, southerners lived in fear of the potential political power of blacks, perceived as prone to criminal activities, and resented tariffs laws oppressive to agricultural interests.

According to the author, these conditions reflect “unanswerable exposures” of Northern oppression. Finally, Carpenter conceives of southern political thought as the result of the geographical location of the South as a section and the knowledge that population figures relegated that section to a minority role.

Southern leaders held to the premise that Jefferson advocated the sovereignty of the states in his recommendation to a friend that the Union remain united in foreign affairs and distinctly separate in domestic affairs during the convention establishing the Articles of Confederation in 1786. According to Southern leaders, the Union existed only for protection. As the government gradually assumed new roles with the opening of transportation systems, the South retreated behind the text of the Tenth Amendment as protection of minority interests. Specifically, the phrase, “the not delegated to the United States…are reserved to the States, or to the people” signified an express limit to the power of the national government.

When Thomas Jefferson assumed the office of President in 1801 he began a twenty-four year tradition of Virginians occupying the office of President, a situation interpreted by many as beneficial to the promotion of the cause of local self-government. Nevertheless, Southerners often interpreted the constitutional government and the judicial system as tools of Northern domination. Hence, limiting the influence of a Southern president.
 

Shqiptar

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I understand early US politics to be based on a veto for the South and (White) Southerners.

The original central government was deliberately weak.
Why?
The north had the larger population and some people (e.g. southerners) did not want that to dominate.
A weak central government would allow Southerners to control the South and in particular to protect their "special institution" - slavery.

Most of the early Presidents were Southerners and the President appoints the Supreme Court judges.
The House of Representatives was population based but not the Senate.

Obviously the 1860s Civil War changed everything...except the Constitution and Congress.
Central government became more powerful but the potential for gridlock was still there.

American politics are based, in my opinion, on a minority veto, which was originally for the South.
American politics are based, in my opinion, on a situation that no longer exists.

Not perfect but you get the North v South idea: Carpenter
Thanks for the background info. This perhaps explains the two senators per state thing regardless of population. It's a laudable means of ensuring that the more populous states don't dominate proceedings although a group of underpopulated states representing only a tiny percentage of Americans could stall matters on certain vital issues. How necessary is it now? Does Wyoming fear the power of the millions in California or Texas?

All in all, it's ironic to see how within one nation there is greater sensitivity to these issues than there is within the multi-nation European Union. On the other hand, the EU is - however painfully - getting to grips with its fiscal imbalances while the one-nation US hasn't really made a start yet.
 
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TiredOfBeingTired

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Thanks for the background info. This perhpsexplains the two senators per state thing regardless of population. It's a laudable means of ensuring that the more populous states don't dominate proceedings although a group of underpopulated states representing only a tiny percentage of Americans could stall matters on certain vital issues. How necessary is it now? Does Wyoming fear the power of the millions in California or Texas?
Interestingly "the two senators per state thing", cannot be changed.
There are reasons for that sort of thing!

What in the Constitution Cannot be Amended?
Ask most Americans whether the United States Constitution is amendable, and they will answer, correctly, of course, that it is. The raging controversy over the proposed equal rights amendment makes it difficult to imagine many people responding otherwise. Were one to ask those same Americans whether the entire Constitution was amendable, however, the answers would likely be a good deal more varied. One would probably receive some hesitant" I think so's," a good share of "I don't know's," and a smattering of guesses that a few provisions were too important to be amendable. It would be a rare person indeed who would accurately respond that the guarantee to each state of equal suffrage in the Senate is the only constitutional provision that is now expressly unamendable under the Constitution's own terms.
In the early years till 1850, new states usually joined in pairs, one northern and one southern.
List of U.S. states by date of statehood - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This maintained the southern veto.

Liberalising the US constitution would be difficult.
You need 75% of the states to agree, i.e 38 states
And there are a lot of small conservative states like Wyoming.

The following is a list of 16 small conservative states that could easily block any liberalising constitutional change.
Alabama Alaska Arkansas Idaho Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Mississippi Montana Nebraska North Dakota Oklahoma South Carolina South Dakota Utah West Virginia
They have a 32 senators, a population of 41 million out of the total US population of 300million.
California has 2 senators and 37 million and very little blocking power.

Conservative Wyoming would fear Liberal California but not Conservative Texas.

On the other hand, the EU is - however painfully - getting to grips with its fiscal imbalances while the one-nation US hasn't really made a start yet.
The American finance system is fairly centralised compared to the EU.
When they want to move, you mightn't hear much and there'll be no Summits, Treaties, Referenda, 2nd Referenda etc. etc. etc.
 

lies

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patwmcgee

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Gridlock is infinitely preferable to any political system where the Democrats would be able to implement any part of their agenda. I am very thankful that our constitution enshrines concepts like federalism, checks and balances between the legislature, executive and judiciary, and even procedural devices like the filibuster, which has worked well when all else has failed. The Democrats try every day to weaken these protections to gain absolute power in Washington D.C. for their Leader, however, we will never surrender!
 

Shqiptar

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Here we go again:

Obama appeals to Republicans in US shut-down row - RTÉ News

People might like to read up on the history of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries when the veto principle was brought to such an extreme that the entire country ground to a halt, became ungovernable and eventually fell prey to neighbouring powers.
 

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