UK’s parliamentary system offers clues for escaping gridlock
LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the ruling Conservative Party, strode to the center of the House of Commons one day recently and took his position the traditional two swords’ length from the opposition.
Soon came the attack: he compared the Labor Party leader’s allegiance to unions to a Sicilian mayor controlled by the Mafia. Labor leader Ed Miliband promptly returned the verbal thrust, calling Cameron “clueless.”
On the surface, the British political debate can sound even worse than the caustic soundtrack of the gridlocked Congress. But beyond the outrageous rhetoric that took place during Prime Minister’s Questions, what has occurred in recent months in Parliament might be startling to those who have observed Washington lawmakers paralyzed into inaction.
There was no gridlock here, no lengthy filibusters, no government shutdown, no threat to bust the debt limit. The Conservative Party leadership forged a coalition with liberals to pass legislation allowing same-sex marriage, and passed a budget without significant amendment.
Indeed, most of the government’s bills become law within a few months of being offered, as is nearly always the case no matter who is in charge.
Both sides seemed comfortable with the arrangement, knowing that a new election is less than two years away. In the meantime, the people’s business was performed with an efficiency that seemed — by Washington standards — strikingly swift.
“We often have to engage in compromise,” Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Party’s Leader of the House of Commons, said in an interview in his office during a break in the contentious floor debate. Compared with Congress, “the power relationship here is a different one.”
Few people, of course, would suggest Congress be replaced by the kind of parliamentary system that Americans rejected when the Constitution was written in 1787. And many Britons of all parties are disaffected by their nation’s politics.
But when it comes to the search for solutions to the gridlock in Congress, many scholars say there is much to be learned from the inherent efficiencies of a parliamentary system.
The differences between the two systems go back to the founding of America. The Constitution created a separation of powers that was designed to avoid a return to monarchial control. But that threat has long since vanished and today such a system facilitates gridlock by establishing competing lines of authority.
Britain, meanwhile, has a system that ensures that a majority government mostly gets what it wants, but does so knowing that if it goes too far it could swiftly lose power entirely.
Indeed, relatively few other countries mirror the American model. Many of the world’s democracies hew closer to a parliamentary system, with or without the royal trappings.
As a result, as partisan extremism has made it difficult to pass even routine congressional legislation, a growing number of political scientists are suggesting that Washington look to America’s former colonial rulers to see if there are some elements of the parliamentary system that could be adapted to end congressional gridlock.
One of the most intriguing proposals, put forward by Harvard University’s Elaine Kamarck and the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, is to require that a congressional leader such as the House speaker garner support from 60 percent of the chamber membership. While there is no such 60 percent requirement in the British system, the proposal is designed to emulate the way parliamentary systems operate with a majority power base broad enough to get things done.
Here, such an approach would likely require an upfront coalition of Republicans and Democrats. (Democrats and independents now have 55 seats out of 100 in the Senate, while Republicans control 54 percent of the House membership.)
While a ruling coalition of 60 percent wouldn’t guarantee legislation would be passed — given that members can vote their own way on individual bills — it would emulate the parliamentary idea that coalitions can be an essential part of governance.
“The advantage of a parliamentary system is that there is, ipso facto from the beginning, a coalition that can pass things,” Kamarck said in an interview. In the United States, where Tea Party supporters have played an outsized role in steering the direction of the Republican Party, “We don’t have a governing coalition because you have your congressional leadership in thrall to a faction of their party.”
Under such a proposal, for example, Republicans wouldn’t have had enough votes to elect John Boehner as their speaker, and Democrats would not have had the votes to select Harry Reid as Senate majority leader.
In order to meet the 60 percent threshold, House Republicans might have had to jettison the Tea Party backers and strike a bargain with a bloc of moderate Democrats, and Senate Democrats would have had to work with center-leaning Republicans. That, in turn, might have led to a more moderate Congress and avoided the shutdown and other elements of gridlock.
In Britain, such coalitions are formed at the outset of a parliamentary session. Cameron’s Conservative Party, for example, failed to win an outright majority. Unwilling to strike a deal with Labor, he struck one with the third-ranking vote getter, the Liberal Democrat Party, which was given five out of 22 Cabinet minister positions and an agreement to have part of its agenda adopted by Conservatives.
That coalition, in turn, selected Cameron as the prime minister, enabling him to get his program through Parliament. The Labor Party became the opposition, with little chance for getting any of its initiatives enacted into law — or of blocking legislation put forward by the Cameron government.
Nonetheless, Miliband, the Harvard-educated Labor leader who hopes to become prime minister after the 2015 election, said he prefers the British system even if it leaves him only on the losing side of most legislative battles for now. That is because he hopes for the same clean lines of power if he becomes prime minister.
“I think it is important to have governments with majorities . . . that can get their business done,” Miliband said in an interview.
To be sure, with so much power in the hands of a ruling coalition, the dangers of overreach are real. Cameron initially supported military intervention in Syria but backed off when he realized many members of his party would revolt. He proposed selling off a vast amount of national forest lands, prompting a national outcry that led to the measure being killed.
At the same time, Cameron has been willing to buck his party to build an alternative coalition on specific issues that have national support.
That is what happened when Cameron’s endorsement of same-sex marriage legislation prompted a revolt by many Conservatives. Cameron cobbled together a coalition of Labor and Liberal Democrats, while opponents had no ability to filibuster to try to stop the measure from becoming law.
Britain, of course, has its legislative oddities. The House of Lords, whose members are appointed, has grown increasingly powerful in its ability to amend legislation.
Angela Eagle, the Labor Party’s “shadow” leader in the House of Commons, finds that vestigial aristocratic power undemocratic and unacceptable. “I’d rather have your system, to be honest,” Eagle said, referring to Congress. She said she prefers people to be elected, not appointed, “if they are going to be legislators.”
But as Eagle has pushed to make her government’s system more accountable to voters, she has encountered resistance to measures that would make Parliament more like Congress.
“You hear that kind of argument all the time,” she said. “The argument against it is that it would create gridlock.”