Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Manifest for a U.S. Parliament

Part 1 - J’accuse!

Over the last few months the United States has gone through a historic election and has entered the first stages of a depression, so the underlying focus of this blog, which is fair and proportional representation of the American people in the political process, has been largely ignored. More than anything, however, institutional and constitutional issues affect economic factors, in that these factors highly affect the successful implementation of an economic and/or legal agenda. The crisis we are seeing right now is, I believe, a direct result of a non-working political system.

In two parts, I will present a manifest for constitutional change, beginning with an indictment of the current system, and continuing with a blueprint for a new one.

Below I will attempt to identify the main problems with the American political system:

* The U.S. Congress is in a state of permanent deadlock due to the bicameral system

The idea of a bicameral system where one body can overrule the other is, in reality, an idea of permanently limiting political change. The result is that it becomes almost impossible to bring about fundamental political change as society changes, and the fundamental situation that existed at the time of the creation of the bicameral system will, in essence, be preserved indefinitely. At the time of the creation of the American political system, wealthy older men were the only citizens who were allowed to, and were ever supposed to be, involved in the political process. That is largely unchanged to this day, all things considered. Even when one party controls both the house and senate, the process of making law is still very much impaired because of the almost complete lack of party unity and the democratically ridiculous practice of filibustering.

* The differentiated voting cycles between the House and Senate creates divided governments

As a result of not holding elections for the House and Senate at the same time, those two houses of Congress tend to go to different parties, as the ruling party usually gets punished by voters after a while in the majority. As a result of this, every piece of legislation that politicians try to introduce will be either shot down, watered down or changed beyond recognition. Result: a do-nothing government.

* The winner-takes-all voting system produces a two-party system

It is an undeniable fact that awarding 100% of the seats in a legislative body to a party that receives the most votes in a given constituency produces a system where only two parties are ever politically viable. Theoretically, a party could very well receive 25% of the votes and still get 100% of the seats, and this has happened before in Anglo-Saxon countries. That anyone can even try to make the case that this is fair to the voters is laughable. In many cases, a majority of the voters in the U.S. cast votes that are wasted, as a majority was in the 2000 Presidential election. Also, how can it be argued that two specific parties that take turns ruling in perpetuity, is in any way a good idea in an ever changing world? And why should there only be two parties? Do the Democrats and Republicans all stem from an eternal breed of geniuses?

* The vast powers of the President make all other politicians all but irrelevant

The United States is the only industrialized country where one person is the head of government and head of state at the same time. In addition, the President is the commander-in-chief and has veto power in Congress. In other words, the President has the ability to control almost every level of American society. As we have seen during these last 8 years, it is definitely not difficult for a U.S. President to usurp vast powers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this country is vulnerable to dictatorship, just like Russia.

* Small states have too much power in the Senate

The fact that all states have an equal voice in the Senate is frankly absurd. If acres of land could think or feel pain, then this system might make sense, but in our world it does not. I completely understand the need for regional considerations, but the legal independence of U.S. states more than makes up for potential negative effects of populous states being more influential on a federal level. U.S. voters must realize that there is a time and place for everything. The U.S. Senate is not the place to discuss the construction of a local playground, and The Montana Senate is not the place to discuss the moral implications of abortion.

* In the United States, large-scale corruption and bribery is completely legal

The financial aspects of U.S. politics are alien and preposterous to most non-Americans. The idea of both local and national politicians going around the country begging for money from wealthy people, corporations and organizations is simply unbelievable. Most U.S. politicians don’t even try to claim that they have guiding principles for the benefit of their voters, naturally because that would be too transparent in light of billions of dollars in campaign donations. In ancient Rome, votes could be bought openly, and it is frankly not much different in the U.S. today. That U.S. voters continue to accept this is beyond me.

* The United States has, by far, the lowest voter participation out of the OECD countries

This is, of course, a testament to a non-working system. Most U.S. voters obviously feel that there is no point in voting, and many of them are consistently and strongly prevented from voting, legally and illegally. Voter suppression is so rampant that it is worthy of a banana republic. Here are some numbers of voter turnout in OECD countries between the years 1945 and 2005:

The Netherlands: 84.8%

Sweden: 83.3%

Israel: 80.0%

Germany: 80.0%

Great Britain: 73.0% (fundamentally the same voting system as the U.S.)

Canada: 66.9% (fundamentally the same voting system as the U.S.)

United States (midterm): 40.6%, (presidential) 55.1%

As you can see, the three countries with the lowest numbers all have one thing in common: they all have the winner-takes-all voting system in which very large parts of the population are shut out of the political process completely.

It’s not a working system, and it needs to be changed.

Do you disagree with me? Please leave comments, and feel free to use generalizations and accusations every bit as sweeping as mine!


Lisa M said...

I think things are going to change when the American standard of living drops dramatically, which might happen soon. My feeling has always been that Americans don't much participate in the electoral process because they're spoiled and complacent, and don't feel they really need to. We are going to see a huge increase in citizen participation when people really start struggling--in a ways they've never before imagined.

As to the two party system, I agree with much of what you said but at the same time I really don't think we presently have a true two-party system. It's really a one-party system which presents itself as two with the only differences being minor social ones. Both parties represent corporate interests almost exclusively and I definitely think we'd do well to get back to a country "of the people by the people and for the poople". I really think the founding fathers were onto something there! The parliamentary system sounds reasonable, but to me the much bigger problem for now is that the politicians we have to choose from are all puppets. Obama, unfortunately, is surrounding himself with the same old players and they're already promising to follow the same old playbook. The playbook that got us to where we are now.

Jacob said...

thank you Lisa. In my next post, I will try to describe the merits of a multi-party system

Steve said...

You are operating under the assumption that a legislator's primary responsibility is to represent some sort of ideology (left, center, right, libertarian, etc). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among the responsibilities of members of Congress is to assist their constituents in resolving issues with the national government. For example, help getting a relative into the US, replacing a lost passport, qualifying a family member for acceptance into West Point, resolving a dispute with Social Security, assisting a relative who has been arrested overseas, etc.)

These issues are neither liberal nor conservative. If your system were adapted, who would citizens contact for assistance they no longer have a personal US representative?

There are concerns a community may have that are not liberal or conservative. Who would residents call if they need federal funding to repair a local bridge or assist homeless veterans? Who would they call if a local factory is seeking to sell products to the federal government or if there is concern that a local military base which is the major employer may be closed?

There are people who have been elected to Congress for reasons having nothing to do with whether they were Democrats or Republicans. They were elected because they were respected for their achievements--a decorated combat veteran (John Kerry), an admired business leader (Jon Corzine), a popular mayor (Richard Lugar), a respected athlete (Bill Bradley), or a highly regarded college professor (Hubert Humphrey).

Yet in your system, these people would be forced to rise up through a national political system that might have no interest in promoting them.

I want my representative to live in or near my community. I want this person to drive on the same roads as I do, shop in the same stores, send his/her kids to the local school. I want this representative to hold town meeting where people in the community can speak out on the issues that concern them.

It appears that under the parliament you propose, there is no guarantee that every state will have representation in this Parliament. Would it be fair to tax the people of Vermont, New Hampshire, or Delaware if no one in their state is a member of Parliament? The cry of the American Revolution was "No taxation without representation."

Currently, voters can and often do simultaneously vote for a Congressman of one party and a Senator of another party. You would take that right away.

For that matter, how would voters be able to remove a politician they don't like from office? Today they could run someone to oppose the incumBent in a primary election or support the opponent in a general election. If there is a politician who is seen as corrupt in this parliament, how can this specific individual be voted out of office?

There are plenty of flaws in our current system which need to be repaired. But your solution is to abolish democracy entirely. Instead of the voters choosing who would represent them, party leaders would make that choice. (If a party won 15% of the vote, it would be the party leaders who would actually select the representatives).

To summarize, your Parliament would deny Americans vital constituent services, strip communities of effective voices for local concerns, abolish the guarantee that every state would have a voice in the legislature, prevent constituents from simultaneously electing members of more than one political party, make the rise of local community leaders to national office all but impossible, and replace the choice of the voters with the choice of the party bosses.

It's been said that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy; your cure is less democracy.

Billy said...

I'm with you on proportional representation and parliamentary government. The two-party winner-take-all system is for the birds.

@Steve: Many of the other responsibilities you bring up for members of Congress really sound more like bureaucratic duties than legislative ones. Why are our lawmakers performing these duties in the first place?

Regarding representation for local concerns, theoretically the federal government is dealing with national issues. State and local governments can advocate for your local and community concerns more easily than your congressman. It would also end the practice of larding up bills of national significance with earmarks for purely local priorities and spending.

Regarding your hyperbole about "the end of democracy", that's laughable. No proportional representation system has those problems you're creating out of thin air. If you don't want a coterie of elite party bosses selecting your party representatives, join and vote for a party that lets its membership select their slate of legislators by a fair and democratic process for the members of that party. Done.