In a parliamentary system, we would easily solve our debt crisis.
AFTER THE STANDARD & POOR’S downgrade in early August, it didn’t take long for the blame game to begin. Predictably, the mainstream media blamed the Republicans. The problem began with the November 2010 election, when a group of Tea Party “terrorists” were elected to Congress. Those who take a longer view blamed it on George W. Bush (who else?).
I go back even earlier. To September 6, 1787, to be precise. That’s when the Founders in Philadelphia abandoned their plans for parliamentary governance in favor of a presidential system.
The presidential system, with its separation of powers between the different branches of government, is at the core of the Constitution, and questioning its worth seems almost unpatriotic. And yet we very nearly adopted a system not unlike the parliamentary regimes of Great Britain and Canada, which lack a separation of powers.
It was a near-run thing, decided only on day 105 of a 116-day Convention. Pennsylvania’s James Wilson remarked, “This subject has greatly divided the House, and will also divide people out of doors. It is in truth the most difficult of all on which we had to decide.”
The Convention had begun with a discussion of James Madison’s “Virginia Plan,” which featured a president appointed by Congress. That’s how governors were appointed in all but two of the states at the time, and it wasn’t thought particularly exceptional. It also had the great advantage of appealing to the strong anti-democratic sentiments of the delegates.
Under the Virginia Plan, the House of Representatives would have been our House of Commons, as George Mason noted. The members of the Senate would have been appointed by the lower house, and the presidential veto would have been greatly circumscribed. Before reversing themselves, the delegates also voted for a broad impeachment standard, where a president might be removed for “malpractice or neglect of duty.” On that standard, Andrew Johnson might plausibly have been removed in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1999. And, just maybe, Barack Obama this year.
The president would have a fixed term but in other respects he’d resemble a prime minister who is chosen by his supporters in the House of Commons.
So how would that have prevented the loss of our AAA credit rating?
In announcing the downgrade, Standard & Poor’s said that the budget deal to which Republicans and Democrats had agreed wasn’t sufficient to resolve the public debt problem. The two political parties had agreed to raise the debt ceiling, but that simply didn’t do the job. In addition, the rating agency didn’t hold up much hope for future cures, given the gridlock in government which the negotiations revealed. The problem was the separation of powers between branches of government in the U.S. Constitution.
Had the delegates to the Philadelphia Conventionadhered to their initial plans for a parliamentary system, without a separation of powers, we wouldn’t have seen the gridlock, and very likely would have had a budget that satisfied all of the rating agencies.
CANADA’S RECENT EXPERIENCE in solving a debt crisis offers an illustrative example of how a parliamentary system can more easily reverse course. In 1994, Canada’s debt crisis was as bad as that of America today, and prompted the Wall Street Journal to label it an honorary member of the Third World. However, the country quickly turned itself around. Prime Minister Chrétien and his minister of finance forced spending cuts that Paul Ryan could only dream of on a reluctant Liberal Party. Over the next 16 years, Canada’s federal debt fell 67 percent to 29 percent of GDP, and in every year between 1997 and 2008 the federal government had a budget surplus. The Canadian government didn’t just cut the growth rate of spending, a budgetary trick employed in the U.S. budget deal last August. It also cut absolute spending on many programs in dollar terms.
What made the turnaround easier was the difference between the structure of political parties in parliamentary and presidential systems. Under the latter, where power is divided between different branches of government, a national party is weaker than in a parliamentary system. A Speaker of the House such as Nancy Pelosi is politically independent of President Obama. By contrast, a member of parliament is dependent on his national party, which generally is run out of the prime minister’s office. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau famously described his backbench MPs as “nobodies.” When Prime Minister Chrétien decided to cut the budget, then, there was no one to oppose him.
That’s not the American way. After the debt deal was signed (and before the downgrade), Senator Harry Reid offered a moving account of American constitutional government. The Founders didn’t adopt the separation of powers to make things easier for politicians. Just the opposite. They wanted to make it harder because they thought this was a way to prevent bad laws from being enacted.
Reversing course is always harder than staring afresh. It’s easier to start a new program than close an existing one; it’s easier to hire a public servant than fire him. Every time a new program is begun, interest groups coalesce around it. Businesses and groups that profit from it will fight tooth and nail to prevent its repeal. This will happen in both presidential and parliamentary systems, but there are special reasons why reversibility is particularly difficult in the former case.
The Constitution’s separation of powers was designed to produce deadlock. Passing a bill is like waiting for three cherries to line up in a Las Vegas slot machine. Unless the president and both houses of Congress sign on, nothing gets enacted. In a parliamentary system, it’s just one cherry, which the prime minister can produce whenever he wants.
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