You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else. - Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill was an astute observer of American government, dependent as he was at getting us into World War II. Born of an English father and an American mother, the Prime Minister was especially interested in the governing systems of his country and ours including the "rigidity of the American Constitution." He did not quarrel with the American system, even though it seemed to produce intractable deadlocks, because he viewed our country as basically founded on freedom, just like his own country.
Were he still alive, I think that Churchill might change his mind. He would no doubt be alarmed at our level of political dysfunction, since it affects governance not only on the North American continent, but the world itself. He would view the United States is simply too powerful in global affairs not to be run efficiently, intelligently, and democratically.
Of course, we Americans have reason to be concerned from a domestic perspective as well. The good news is that the non-political parts of the government have continued to operate reasonably well, including the judiciary (one of the three branches of the government), the military, and the professionals in the Federal workforce. The bad news is that the politically controlled parts of the government are failing us, especially the House of Representatives, and to a lesser extent the Senate and even the Presidency itself.
The incompetence of the politicos has extended to the most basic functions of government such as establishing a reasonable budget, ensuring that we meet our debt obligations, and even keeping the government open and the Federal workforce employed.
The incompetence of the politicos has extended to the most basic functions of government such as establishing a reasonable budget, ensuring that we meet our debt obligations, and even keeping the government open and the Federal workforce employed. Congress has been especially inept, particularly the House, and the culprits have overwhelmingly been aligned with the Grand Old Party.
We obviously have a systemic problem with our governance. Many pundits have identified the problem as too much money in the system, from the billionaires funding the Presidential candidates to the corporate lobbyists on K Street. They say that all will be well once we put strict financial limits on elections, perhaps including Federal funding of elections. These pundits seem to have fewer answers for controlling the flow of money through corporate lobbyists. And they pay little attention to the revolving door where critical governmental positions are temporarily filled by highly paid shills from various corporate interests who quickly return to private industry before the sacrifice of government employment does irreparable damage to their personal finances.
I suggest that the unimpeded flow of corporate and billionaire money is a natural corollary of our governing system, and is not the fundamental issue that needs to be fixed. I believe the real issue is the three-branch system created by the founding fathers three centuries ago. Based on their experiences with the King of England, they were understandably concerned about abuse of power and therefore established a system with extreme checks and balances. They deliberately created a system that would be slow and ponderous and compounded the problem by not considering the impact of political parties, which serve as yet another checks-and-balances entity. Perhaps a good solution for a land of horses and powdered wigs, but not so good for today.
So what kind of system of governance would be an improvement to ours?
Well, let's consult with our best and brightest during one of our nation-building exercises. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, General Douglas McArthur became the de facto emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun. He and his highly educated staff undertook a major restructuring of the government of Japan and wrote a new constitution ... in English no less. After some negotiations the Japanese adopted most of the constitution as written (after translating it to Japanese). Did the General and his American team impose a US-style government with three branches of government? No, they chose a parliamentary system as the most workable government based on the culture and history of the country. The Japanese Diet was restructured into a modern parliament, which lives on to this day.
In Europe, the United States worked with our allies to formulate a new government for West Germany. Once again, the result was a modern parliamentary system, the Bundestag.
It's a general rule: the developed countries on this planet have some form of a parliamentary system. One notable exception is China, which has never formally jettisoned its communist government, even though it now practices a wide-open form of capitalism. The other exception: the "exceptional" United States.
For all practical purposes, the United States stands alone in the First World with its three-branch governmental system that was constructed from the ground up in the 1700s. The founding fathers completely separated the executive and legislative branches and instituted fixed terms of office for each. It was a system that was brilliant for its time, but is now showing its age.
Parliamentary systems combine the executive and legislative branches of government, and they recognize the important role of the political parties in the governing system. The Prime Minister of the country is the leader of the majority party. Elections are typically one month in duration, and the party (or coalition of parties) that wins the most seats in parliament, assumes the office of Prime Minister with its control of the executive functions of the government. Elections may be held on fixed terms, but there are provisions to call early elections if the government no longer has the confidence of the people.
What are the advantages of parliamentary systems?
- Because the executive functions of the government are run by the majority party in parliament, we don't see the internecine warfare that occurs in the United States whenever different parties control the executive and legislative branches (especially when the GOP controls Congress).
- Whenever the government is not working, parliamentary systems can choose to dissolve the government and call new elections. There is no need to allow the problem to fester while awaiting the end of the fixed term. And there is no time wasted in endless impeachment proceedings.
- Because elections are held on a hurry-up basis with one month of campaigning, there is much less money expended on the process. This reduces the power of billionaires and corporations to impact elections.
- Most parliamentary systems have a cabinet of ministers running the country who represent the majority party with a "shadow cabinet" of ministers from the minority party. If the "conservative" party takes over from the "liberal party" (or vice versa), there is a smooth transition as the shadow cabinet of ministers becomes the primary cabinet and takes over the executive agencies. We don't have the musical chairs seen in the United States whenever the Presidency changes hands with new inexperienced pols assuming the reins of the various agencies.
- The United States has separate elections for President vis-a-vis Congress. The Presidential campaign can become an embarrassing fact-free circus as evidenced by the GOP this year. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary system is simply the head of the majority party as selected by the party itself. He or she is the leader most respected by the party apparatus itself.
I believe that Federal governance in the United States would be far superior with a parliamentary system, and the corrupting influence of money would be lessened. I am hardly a constitutional scholar, but I suspect these changes could be achieved in a "constitutional" manner through a far-ranging constitutional convention that is empowered to do a major rewrite of our hallowed document.
Of course, the powers-that-be in this country would pronounce these ideas "dead on arrival." Why not? They are personally and financially vested in the system. They would say that such a transformation of our government would be impossible to achieve and shouldn't be given serious reflection.
General McArthur might beg to differ ...
Democratic Club of Camarillo