The Real Advantage of a Parliamentary System

Fri, 26 Aug 2011 13:11:01 +0000

In a column last week, Fareed Zakaria asked, "Does America Need a Prime Minister?"  It is a question that often comes up when political gridlock makes it appear that we cannot respond to a crisis.  My answer is no.  Answer yes if you would have rather had the country governed with the Speaker of the House as the chief executive rather than the President over all of the last two decades.  Prime Minister Gingrich.  Prime Minister Pelosi.  Answer yes if you would like to have more and possibly more influential Tea Party movements legitimized as parties of their own, or if you would like Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) to have more company serving in elected office on Capitol Hill.

An advantage of the parliamentary system that I do wish we could find a way to replicate in our non-parliamentary system is the requirement that a party cannot obtain control of the national executive branch without demonstrating its appeal in the national legislative branch.  This is no guarantee of good government, but I think it would improve our system, at least based on the experience of recent decades.  It is a feature of our system that we tend to elect governors, rather than senators, to the Presidency.  We haven't elected a senator who wasn't facing another senator since JFK.  So every 4-8 years, the party that does not control the Presidency has a shot at gaining the Presidency -- and thus "half" of the power in the Washington -- with a candidate who has had nothing to do with Washington and its current predicament.  Look at the way all governors, from Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush, have run as "outsiders."

Stated differently, in our system, there may be insufficient reward to a political party for good behavior in the legislature, and not nearly enough punishment to a political party for bad behavior in the legislature.  Since control of the legislature is the ultimate electoral prize in a parliamentary system, that is a problem those systems don't have to quite the same degree as we do.