Tag Archives: U.S. Senate

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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.

In Praise of Some (Polite) Hell-Raising

Wall at the Newseum, Washington, D. C.
Front Wall at the Newseum, Washington, D. C.

The First Amendment is the best part of our flawed constitution. It’s also an essential license needed to secure the discussion that every society needs in order to renew itself.

I don’t share the unqualified enthusiasm that others express for the timeless relevance of our Constitution.  It’s enumeration of congressional and presidential powers is badly out of sync with our political times. And as a roadmap for a republic, it retains some of the offenses to the idea of direct democracy that were built in its earlier iterations. For example, Article One enshrines the fact that states like Rhode Island and California will have the same levels of representation in the Senate.  Irrespective of population size, all states get two Senators. But in terms of modern ideas of direct proportionality, California should have at least 35 more members in that body than the lovely but minuscule Ocean State.

In addition, the elaborate checks and balances the founders wanted as a remedies against warring political “factions” have produced just the reverse.  For many reasons gridlock is now structured into the system. The young adults I teach may represent the first American generation to never see the kind of Congressional leadership that was capable of partnering with a President to effectively govern. Examples of impressive Senate leadership–Johnson, Fulbright, Baker, among others–come from the not-so-recent past. Little wonder that for my students the body politic barely has a pulse.

What saves our Constitution is mostly its liberalizing Amendments, with some (The First, Thirteenth and Nineteenth) much better than others (The Second).

One could argue with some oversimplicity that, along with the idea of the national parks, the best idea we have given to ourselves and the world is The First Amendment. Its wording is refreshingly simple and free from a long list of exemptions. The Founders never gave the world a better model for freedom than this short and unambiguous paragraph.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is a good time to celebrate the Amendment, which has most recently given aggrieved citizens in Ferguson Missouri the right to march and be heard. Members of the community knew they had that right, and so far many–though not all–have exercised it reasonably. As in Ferguson, the challenge is to restrain the natural but sometimes misplaced interest by law enforcement officials to rein in crowds with uncertain intentions.

Sometimes the Amendment is used to justify vast and uneven distributions of media power, as in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. the F.C.C. ruling. The decision essentially the use of money in a campaign as a form of speech. Even constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who inexplicably likes the ruling, concedes that the court’s obliteration of legal limits on campaign spending will give the wealthy vastly greater access to America’s voters.

I think Abrams is wrong to accept the court’s logic. Who knew the Justices could so blithely misread the Amendment as a franchise to the wealthy to dominate campaigns? So far most corporations have been more or less circumspect about funding the “superpacs” the decision allows.  But we’ll be lucky if our democracy survives the tsunami of campaign cash that will come to favored candidates from trade and ideological groups.

All the more reason, perhaps, to raise a little hell as invited by The First Amendment.  We are free to rally, march, write, publish, blog, carry signs, hold meeting and vigils, criticize, seek out lawmakers, pray and meet with who we please.

Of course, anything like throwing explosives at party-goers should not be a protected. That bit of misplaced hell-raising is part of my family’s lore. Many years ago my uncle supposedly made his way into Denver from the family mine in the nearby mountains to register his frustration over the slight of not being invited to a party.  He scattered the crowd quickly by tossing a lit dynamite starter on to the dance floor at a downtown country club. In his mind he was perhaps just using the tools for the family trade to register his objections.  But “speech” it wasn’t. I’m proud to report that he later redeemed himself as a prodigy geologist at The Colorado School of Mines, moving on just before he died  to help Japan set up its own Bureau of Mines.

But the point remains. The First Amendment is the best instrument for a vigorous civil society in an otherwise flawed constitution. It’s also an essential license needed to secure the right of discussion that every society needs in order to renew itself.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu