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Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

Jacobs: Parliamentary system would have avoided stalemate

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columns Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Were you looking for an argument in favor of a parliamentary rather than a congressional system of government?

Well, the situation in Washington over the past half dozen years may be as good as you can get.

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The key difference between these systems, as George Will points out elsewhere on this page, is the sharing of power. In a congressional system, power is shared between the executive and legislative branch. In a parliamentary system, it rests with the legislative branch.

Parliamentary governments, such as those in Canada and Great Britain, choose their heads of government from among legislative members, called parliaments in both countries.

In the United States, we elect the head of government separately.

That choice, made at the nation's founding, led directly to the paralysis that gripped Washington earlier this month and to the ill will that's been festering since Barack Obama was elected president.

Put perfectly plainly, some members of Congress just can't accept that Obama won the presidency, not just once but twice.

In a parliamentary system, the leader of the party with a majority of seats becomes the head of government.

If that party loses its majority, the government falls, and new elections are held.

Of course, parliamentary governments have only one elected chamber, the House of Commons in both Canada and Britain. Canada's Senate is effectively made up of appointed members. Membership in Britain's House of Lords is essentially hereditary.

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution substituted an elected Senate for the House of Lords, of course, but they gave it a kind of special status. Membership isn't proportioned on population. Instead, the Senate represents individual states.

Initially, senators weren't elected at large at all, but rather were chosen by state legislatures. Not until early in the 20th Century were senators elected at large.

North Dakota has the distinction of electing the first at-large senator, Martin Johnson, who had been a member of the U.S. House. The Legislature had passed a law binding its members to elect the person winning the largest number of votes in a popular election -- this before the Constitution was amended to require statewide elections for members of the Senate.

A chamber based on geography rather than population was necessary to secure ratification of the Constitution in the first place. Smaller colonies never would have accepted any other arrangement. As it happens, the larger colonies didn't much like it. The smallest colony, Delaware, was the first to ratify; and the largest, New York, the last to ratify.

As Will points out, the choice framed American political life, and a vigorous give-and-take has characterized the process.

Until our own times.

What we have now is stalemate.

A quite different dynamic prevails in a parliamentary system. A party that lacks votes in a parliamentary system lacks influence -- so long as the party of government is able to keeps its members in line.

Unless no party has an absolute majority. In that case, parties jockey among themselves to form a coalition that will control a majority of the votes. Usually, the party with the largest bloc of votes leads the coalition, but this is not always the case. But it is the case that a government that loses the confidence of the parliamentary majority ceases to be the government -- it falls, as the saying goes. Then new elections are held.

In practice, this has given rise to multiple parties in most parliamentary systems.

In Canada, the left-leaning New Democratic Party has often held the balance of power, usually sustaining Liberal governments. Not long ago, Canadians got tired of this arrangement and elected a Conservative Party majority to Parliament. It governs today. In Germany, a right-leaning party, the Free Democrats, have helped sustain conservative governments.

The key is that a level of agreement is essential in order for the government to survive.

As Americans learned this month, our government fails in the face of perpetual disagreement.

Precious few Americans would want to abandon the congressional system and its two parties for a parliamentary system with multiple parties. That just seems unAmerican.

But today's stalemate in our system is unprecedented. Sure, the issue of slavery presented a greater crisis, but it was a sectional dispute. Today's stalemate is ideological. Such disagreements are hard to resolve in a congressional government -- because resolution requires compromise, and that's hard to find when the government is divided, and the two parties are frozen in their points of view.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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