Has America turned into a parliamentary democracy?
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passionately defends the filibuster as an important safeguard to protecting minority rights as envisioned by the framers of our Constitution. McConnell makes the important point that in our presidential system in America, change should be long and hard, not quick and easy, and that any major change must have support broader than one election and 51 Senate votes.
The framers of our Constitution were concerned both about absolute executive power and untrammeled democracy where momentary majorities run roughshod over the minority. The result was the doctrine of separation of powers, which included an independent judiciary along with an executive with limited powers elected separately from a legislature composed of two houses, one that represents individuals and one that represents the states. The Senate historically has acted as a “unanimous consent” body on most matters with the filibuster as an additional guarantee to insure that change to federal policy is deliberate.
This is in sharp contrast to parliamentary democracies in Europe and elsewhere where the chief executive is elected by the majority party of the legislature. The result is an ability by the government to enact change far more easily and more sweeping, but without deliberation that is characteristic of debate in America. Such parliamentary systems spawn far more ideological parties, and hence these “negotiated majorities” among parties produce far less stable governments than our system.
America has ominously been moving more toward a parliamentary system, with more abrupt changes in national policy, less debate, and far less bipartisanship. Our “get it done now” culture is leading us here. Interest groups and talking heads always demand immediate action on favored priorities and bemoan any delay in enactment. Our attention span for all things is shrinking, while the desire for the government to “do something” to solve seemingly intractable problems is strong.
Political campaigns and parties reflect this desire. It is exceedingly rare to find candidates who have major disagreements with the consensus of their party. How many Democrats against abortion or Republicans favoring gun control are running for office? The successful candidates overwhelmingly share the same basic orientation as their party. This ideological consistency increases the difficulty of eventually arriving at consensus in a system like ours that demands just that.
This centralizing trend is underlined by attitudes in Congress of the role of members in our system. The old debate focused on the duty of a member to vote the views of his constituents versus his personal views. The new demand is for the member to support the head of his or her party. Therefore, ObamaCare was enacted with no Republican votes. Likewise, the Republican tax reform won no Democratic support. Members from moderate districts or purple states are routinely pressured to support their party leadership on unpopular measures in Congress.
In the House, it has become more of a rubber stamp for the majority as bills reported by committees routinely come to the floor with a “closed rule” that prohibits amendments or even much debate in most cases. In the Senate, the legislative filibuster remains, but Democratic presidential candidates and, significantly, several leading Democratic senators have expressed a willingness to consider filibuster changes or even its abolition if their party retakes the majority after the election next year.
Advocates of limited government are at a disadvantage. Large new redistribution programs, once enacted, are destined for eternal life on this earth. Public benefits, once given, are difficult to take away. Sweeping new entitlements under a President Elizabeth Warren or a President Bernie Sanders, for instance, that are enacted by 51 Senate Democrats, would be difficult to repeal. The pendulum swings back and forth, but always with a bias to expanded government. That is part of progressive calculations. Government largesse, once bestowed, cannot be reversed.
Therefore, the intent of the framers to make change difficult and time consuming is in conflict with progressive desires to remake American society, in their words, even if blessed by only one election and a bare majority. Advocates of federalism must fight to preserve our presidential system, which includes the legislative filibuster. They might also look to require supermajorities for future sessions of Congress to enact sweeping legislative changes for, say, taxes and entitlement programs.
James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers that supermajority votes could serve as a “shield to some particular interests” and another “obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures.” It is not too much to ask that more than a bare majority of both chambers of Congress consent to any efforts to increase the scope and burden of the modern welfare state. It would be in pursuit of the maxim of Thomas Jefferson that “government which governs least governs best.”
Frank Donatelli served as an assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. He is now executive vice president and director at McGuire Woods Consulting.