Tag Archives: House of commons

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Different Systems That Should Yield Different Outcomes

       McConnell Talking in a Typically Empty Senate

Imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he was required to show up every week to answer questions from members of the Senate.

The long shutdown of portions of the American government shares some features with the Brexit impasse that has left the U.K. in a catastrophic stalemate.  As this is written, neither system seems capable of building coalitions to execute needed changes.  But one system has the better odds: a better structure for moving forward.

From a political and communications perspective, the standoff in the United States is much more predictable than the impasse in the United Kingdom.  Here’s why.  A communications starting point typically emphasizes direct discussion and negotiation as basic tools for moving a lumbering government off dead center. A parliamentary model has the kind of deliberative infrastructure that requires direct communication. Debate in the House of Commons will not allow members to exist only in their own informational bubbles.  The system requires public and frequent contact between key ministers and their shadow counterparts literally just a few feet away.  Since the key business of the House is debate, members must be prepared to be effective advocates and better listeners.

British parliamentary debate is often riveting, and it is also public. Granted, positions tend to solidify when spoken in public.  Any system emphasizing public discussion can turn intellectual fluidity into hardened cement.  But debate in the commons is still better than our ‘no debate’ Congress, which emphasizes “statements” issued mostly for the record rather than the ears of other members.

All of this leads one to expect that Brexit would be closer to resolution than it is. Alas, the problem in London is really not structural, but one of basic leadership. The nation has weak leaders in the form of Prime Minister Theresa May and the Labor Party’s Jeremy Corbyn.  May is especially risk-averse and inflexible: precisely the opposite of what seems necessary.


What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims.


If it’s possible, the American system right now is even more anemic, having just come off a two-year period with a mostly comatose Congress that had been thoroughly rolled by the President.  As is obvious, the checks and balances that are ostensibly part of the system have been absent. Compliant Senate and House majorities have shown little interest in challenging a rogue executive.

More misery in the country was only avoided when enough Americans voted last November, resulting in split party majorities in the two houses of Congress.  The House of Representatives will now fulfill the oversight function the founders envisioned. But the GOP-dominated Senate and White House are still sufficiently entrenched to make it difficult to build coalitions to solve problems.

What a comparison of the two systems makes clear is how American divided government lacks any systemic requirement for a public airing of competing political claims. Remember that C-SPAN cameras controlled by both bodies of Congress routinely conceal the truth that few are present when the House and Senate are in session.  Elected deciders are usually not in the room to hear the comments of those on the other side. The cameras are never allowed to show empty seats.  Instead, we depend mostly on journalists to summarize and sometimes create proxy debates on some core issues.  And that’s not journalism’s job.

Journalism is not structured to foster direct one-on-one debate.  It is almost never in the interests of news organizations to turn over control of a venue to opposing political figures. To be sure, we have many fine journalists working these days.  But routine journalistic practices require the interruption of direct debate. Journalistic norms range from the need for heavy editing in the interests of time or space to a compulsion to introject new issues for discussion before old ones have been fleshed out.  Television and ‘short-read’ articles make discursive political discussion problematic.

So it seems clear that the Parliamentary system has the edge in resolving a political impasse. If that judgment is not apparent, try to imagine what would happen to a dithering figure like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if—as in a parliamentary system–he was required to show up every week and answer questions from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.  There’s a big difference between being a party leader in Congress and being an authentic champion of democratic discourse.

Eventually we will hear of a privately negotiated deal to end the shutdown.  That’s our de-facto system, put in place not because of any constitutional requirement, but because we have mostly ignored the collective action of a body of legislators working out their differences in public debate.

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What to Do if a Debate Breaks Out

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.

Journalists and some Americans expressed amazement at the impromptu debate that broke out in the Oval Office on December 11.  The President was meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the hope of coming to an agreement to keep the government funded into the new year.  To the surprise of the Democratic leaders, Trump opened up the meeting to the press, who then scurried into the crowded space to record the conversation taking place inches away.  For the next 17 minutes a sometimes rancorous discussion unfolded, especially after Trump indicated he would prefer to shut down the government than accept a bill without financing for the five-billion dollar folly of a border wall.

Pelosi and Schumer were not pleased.  For them, “debate” usually means reading prepared remarks to empty chambers.  They expected a private discussion rather than an event that gave the impression that they had been sandbagged. Trump professed his pleasure for the open meeting, noting with a half smile that it was an example of “transparency.” And so the bickering continued, with both democrats claiming there was very little legislative support for his project.

The President and former reality television star seemed to love the moment. But in truth he’s not a very good debater; in this instance he gave up too much to his opponents. Using his preferred style of bluster, he overreached by taking full responsibility for any eventual government shutdown. He said it would be worth the price of improved American security.

Aside from this bogus false choice, Trump clearly had forgotten what misery that closed government facilities can cause in a holiday season when the need for them is near its peak.  Want to visit a national monument? Think again.  Want to get information on medical and social security services? Not if the government is mostly closed.

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.  We welcome the shelter of like-minded folks on the news channels that many of us watch.  In these polarizing days even our choice of who to spend time with is weighed based on the known political views of the others.  Moreover, as a nation we are less likely to entertain a full debate on the merits of an idea unless a member of the press is present to change the topic when things begin to get interesting.

              The Prime Minister in the House of Commons

At the same time  that there was this momentary public airing of differences, British legislators were still engaged in a nearly continuous public debate–much of it within the House of Commons–exchanging pleas to move beyond the self-inflicted morass of Brexit. To be sure, it is a mess; few are interested in throwing Prime Minister Theresa May a lifeline.  However this quandary is resolved, it is likely to cost Britain a great deal in terms of its national prestige and economy.

But here’s the point: though we may be justified in giving our British cousins a rap on the head for this quagmire, give the country credit for airing the issues fully, and with the expectation that the Prime Minister will participate in days and and many hours of open debate with her opponents.  Britain and other parliamentary democracies have woven debate into their system.  True to form, May has been a dutiful if uninspired advocate throughout this exhaustive process.

The British expect that a public official should be able to answer questions about key facts, the likely effects of policy actions, and best estimates of the consequences of a changed relationship with the European Union.  Public debate is a fixed expectation.  In the United States it is such an unexpected event that it gets its own “Breaking News!” graphic and an excited cadre of talking heads.  All of this in an age where we have convinced ourselves that we are more connected than ever.