The main functional difference between the U.S. Congress and a parliament is that in Congress the coalitions are formed before the election, while in a parliament they’re formed afterward. Many Americans envy the plethora of parties found in parliamentary democracies (Labour! Conservatives! Christian Democrats! Greens! The People’s Front of Judea!), without realizing that we have just as many minor parties as they do.
The truth is, American politics are as rife with factions as anyone else. Religious-conservative Prairie Muffins have nothing in common with the uber-rich hedonists who fund the Heritage Foundation, but both are Republican; union autoworkers have no natural affinity for Birkenstocked environmentalists, but both tend Democratic. What we call “The Right” actually is a grab-bag of paleoconservatives, Tea Partiers, Christian Dominionists, Libertarians, gun nuts, and a handful of LaRouchies (who, like Zoroastrian fundamentalists or Bruce Willis, don’t realize they’re ghosts yet). On what we call “The Left,” nominally like-minded liberals perpetually respond to electoral success by devolving immediately into warring clans: Obamabots versus Firebaggers, resurrected New Democrats (who, I gather, seem to have snipped the labels out of their Izods) shoving things to the right while Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader pray for someone to primary Obama from the left.
In a Parliament, each of these groups would comprise its own political party: Democrats, Republicans, New Democrats, Greens, Tea Partiers, Dominionists, etc. And before the Parliamentary election, they would be studiously separate. Each would win some seats in Parliament, but most of the time none would win an absolute majority, so after the election, coalition-building would begin: Republicans and Democrats alike would woo the Libertarians by pitching small government and personal freedom, respectively; Dems would send Jim Wallis as an envoy to try and peel off a few Dominionists by appealing to social justice issues.
Sometimes the politics of Parliamentary coalition-building make very strange bedfellows, as in the British Parliament today (where the governing coalition was formed by what in America would be Republicans and Greens). But horses would be traded, a majority would be cobbled together, and that strange coalition would elect the new Prime Minister.
In America, we think we do things differently — but we don’t. We simply conduct our coalition-building and odd-bedfellow-matchmaking BEFORE the popular election instead of afterward. This is clearest during Presidential primaries, where each candidate effectively represents a minor sub-party (e.g., Romney representing the center-right, Bachmann the Tea Party, Pawlenty the often-overlooked Boring Vote). Those sub-party primary candidates fight not only to win the nomination, but also to claim a place for their constituents in the final administration. (That’s why can’t-win candidates still find it worthwhile to enter the fray.) As each back-runner drops out, he or she horse-trades with the front-runners, exchanging their endorsement (and their faction’s votes) for some position or increment of power in the new regime. That’s how primary losers wind up being Vice-Presidents or Secretaries of State: they have traded their own coalition’s support to help form the governing majority, in exchange for a slice of the power. And whoever builds the largest coalition wins the election. It’s the same as Parliament, but done before the popular election rather than after it.
That’s a long introduction to a very short thought, which is this: sometimes Congress can function like a Parliament, with the coalition-building occurring after the body is constituted. Whenever Republicans win the votes of Blue Dog Democrats, that’s Parliamentary-style coalition-building. Whenever Democrats peel off the moderate Maine Twins, that’s Parliamentary-style coalition-building.
It’s very possible that late this week or early next, the U.S. House of Representatives will transform itself into the House of Commons. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is in a death spiral: unable to control the Tea Party branch of his own caucus, bearing most of the popular blame for the debt ceiling debacle, stalked from behind by Eric Cantor, reduced to griping publicly about how much his job sucks, his grip on the Speakership itself slipping away — and, since no one really fears the threats or trusts the promises of a soon-to-be ex-Speaker, he seems to have lost the clout even to pass his own weak debt-ceiling bill through the house he nominally leads. In short, his coalition is falling apart.
In a parliament, this is precisely the moment when someone would shout “no confidence!” and call for new elections. The factions would reshuffle: the Tea Party would support Eric Cantor for Speaker, but more adult Republicans, aware of how deathly serious a default and debt downgrade would be, would look elsewhere for a champion. And if a No Confidence vote were held in the House of Representatives today, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would have a simple majority.
But if the Republican brand is failing, there remains one faction in the House that could form itself a majority government:
You know, serious politicians who are able to look into the abyss and have the sense not to plunge into it.
Congress-turned-Parliament would allow allow the factions in Congress to reshuffle, create a new majority comprised of strange bedfellows allied for a common (if sadly ephemeral) purpose, prevent a catastrophic default next Tuesday, and possibly even hammer out a deal to bend the medium-term debt curve so that Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s don’t downgrade the U.S. debt by the end of the summer (which they will do if we only lift the debt ceiling). All it would take is for Nancy Pelosi to step up, craft a reasonable, non-punitive debt ceiling/spending bill, and pitch it to the adults in the room.
A good Pelosi “grown-ups” bill would do three things:
1) Lift the debt ceiling until after the elections;
2) Sail into Standard & Poor’s non-downgrade safe harbor by both cutting $2.5 trillion or so in spending over the next decade and by raising slightly under $1 trillion in new revenue by simply closing some of the more egregious tax expenditures and loopholes and trimming back the spendthrift Bush tax cuts on the rich (goring both liberals and conservatives — but like it or not, S&P’s threat must be responded to); and
3) Firewall any significant cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare until at least 2013.
That bill could be supported, albeit with predictable griping, by every House Democrat. And it already is privately supported by many 24 House Republicans; all that Pelosi needs is to get 24 of them to step up and support it publicly.
The Tea Party would scream bloody murder. Rush Limbaugh would lambaste the “traitorous twenty-four.” So what. For some Rs, the remaining good and serious ones, those blasts would be badges of honor.
Yes, Boehner could prevent a Pelosi solution from coming to the floor — but Boehner, with nothing left in his toolkit, the world’s economy on the bubble, his “friend” Eric Cantor at his throat, his Speakership (if not his seat) already lost, 24 Republicans begging him to get out of their way, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which is on Obama’s side in this fight) instructing him to damn well get out of the way, may well allow such a bill to be voted on. Again, he doesn’t love the Tea Party; he hates it, and he is beholden first to Wall Street, which has been collaborating with Obama to force Boehner into this precise predicament to hobble the uppity Tea Party. Push come to shove, Boehner would (probably tearfully) allow the vote.
And if he did, then he and those 24 “turncoat,” patriotic Republicans would save the nation’s economy, and possibly the world’s. Boehner would, most likely, see that his Speakership is lost, and retire. The 24, depending on their districts, would either win re-election as common-sense pragmatists and move on to brilliant careers as pragmatic, common-sense centrists, or would lose their seats and move on to lucrative jobs offered by an eternally grateful Wall Street (which, again, is firmly in the “solve this problem” camp). For all of them, life would go on.
Democrats plus 24: that’s all it takes to solve this problem. All it would take to make it possible is for Pelosi to recognize that as the Republican caucus crumbles into its constituent factions, Congress briefly becomes the House of Commons — giving her the chance to craft a new majority from the rubble of the G.O.P.