In a parliamentary system, we would easily solve our debt crisis.
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Was that the separation of powers has prevented more bad than good laws from being enacted. That’s an empirical point, however, and not a few bad laws have been passed in recent years, such as Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. The list of bad ideas enacted in other countries that we have avoided has become vanishingly small. Moreover, not a few good laws have been blocked, such as the serious attempts to reduce the debt crisis proposed by Republicans this year.
WHETHER ONE SEES GRIDLOCK as good or bad will often turn on who’s on top for the moment. For much of the last century progressives saw their side as politically dominant and the separation of powers as an obstacle to their legislative agenda. As for conservatives, I recall someone telling me “Pray for Gridlock!” in 1992.
That’s not a principled reason to prefer one system over another. Quite apart from the passions of the day, however, there is a reason to prefer parliamentary to presidential systems. What a parliamentary system offers is reversibility, a greater ability to change course and undo a bad law. What a presidential system offers is pre-enactment screening, the greater scrutiny given to legislation when passage is delayed by gridlock. And what I should like to argue is that reversibility trumps pre-enactment screening.
What reversibility has going for it is that it is easier to identify bad laws with the benefit of hindsight. Think of Obamacare, for example, which grows more unpopular as people learn more about it, or the bailouts, which are now seen to have done nothing except balloon out the public debt. What gridlock gives us is a one-way ratchet in which bad ideas are adopted and then turned into the laws of the Medes and the Persians.
Nor is it the case that we get much pre-enactment screening in the U.S. Major amendments are quietly inserted at the last moment, escaping the scrutiny of regulators charged with overseeing the bill. At the extreme, a statute might be so lengthy as to greatly reduce any possibility of meaningful preenactment screening. One might have expected the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to have had something to say about Obamacare, whose constitutionality is now before the courts. John Conyers’ difficulty was that it’s a little hard to have an opinion about a bill one has not read. One can’t be unsympathetic, however. “What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages,” said Conyers, “and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you’ve read the bill?”
Reversibility is particularly valuable in the current economic crisis. Had one to choose between a presidential and a parliamentary system without knowing what year or country one was in, the choice might perhaps not be easy. Between 1960 and 1998, presidential systems with their separation of powers were associated with smaller governments and smaller deficits. That period was the high tide of Keynesianism, an illness to which parliamentary systems succumbed more quickly than presidential ones. In recent years, however, the United States has caught the same disease, and parliamentary systems are in recovery.
Against this, it might be thought that presidential systems are more likely to preserve liberty. That’s not what Madison thought in drafting the Virginia Plan. When he wrote Federalist 10 a year later, however, he had done a volte-face, and noted that “The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Once again, however, that’s a prediction history hasn’t borne out. When one looks at other countries, there are a good many more presidents-for-life than prime ministers-forlife. America was spared tyranny because it is American, with an inherited tradition of liberty, and not because of a Constitution that wasn’t made for export.
IN SUM, it’s time to question whether the separation of powers was such a good idea after all. Not that we’re about to adopt a parliamentary regime, but there are features of American politics that can readily be changed and that have been kept in place because they seem to bolster the gridlock produced by the separation of powers. Think ahead to November 2012. There’s a good chance that Republicans will win the presidency and the House. In the Senate they have a good shot at 55 members. They’ll ride into town and try to repeal Obamacare. And that’s when they’ll run into the Senate filibuster.
Those who defend the filibuster tend to pick out some instances where it cut their way. It hurt us when our side was on top, they tell us, but go back a bit further and you’ll find an example where it cut our way. If I’m correct, however, it systematically hurts the country. In particular, conservatives who want to undo the legislative mess of the last few years will want to put their finger on the nuclear option to blow up the filibuster.
The liberals of yesterday have become the conservatives of today, as they try to resist the changes that must be enacted to restore America to economic health. Think of how Nancy Pelosi crowed in the last budget deal about how she had prevented changes to Medicare and Social Security. They are the old guard, the ancien régime, the Bourbons who have remembered nothing and forgotten nothing, while the radicals, the agents of change, are conservatives. In enacting the reforms that America needs, it is the liberals who will cling to any device to preserve the status quo, and the Filibuster will be their strongest weapon. That is why, if the 2012 election turns out as I expect, the first order of business for then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell should be a return to simple majoritarian rule and the elimination of the filibuster.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?