Shutdown Syndrome

By Kellyn Brown

I’m probably supposed to write something about the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. You know, how the government shut down, closed Glacier National Park and furloughed a bunch of federal employees. But you’ve likely read enough about that, and my opinion is unlikely to change yours.

Instead, as I read about political gridlock, this “new normal,” I’m reminded of the late Bob Kelleher – the unconventional and perennial political candidate from Butte who died in 2011 and was perhaps best known for advocating that the United States adopt a parliamentary system of government.

Kelleher ran under a number of party banners. He actually won the GOP primary in 2008 – though the party wouldn’t fund his general election campaign – and he lost handily to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus.

I first interviewed Kelleher in 2002 as a college student at the University of Montana. He was enthusiastic, wore a train engineer cap, and at the time was running as a Green Party candidate. I thought his idea of changing the greatest political system in the world (at least in my mind) was crazy. But looking back, and considering recent history and Congress’ approval rating of 10 percent, perhaps he made some valid points.

There’s a reason more countries haven’t adopted our system of government. There’s also a reason their governments don’t shut down. Erik Voeten wrote about the uniqueness of American democracy in the Washington Post.

“In most countries I know, if the politicians are too polarized to reach agreement, then the budget simply reverts to last year’s budget (or some other reversion value that keeps government open.)”

Our country’s government, on the other hand, has weathered 18 shutdowns of varying degrees since 1976. But the problem isn’t just Congress, nor the current or former presidents, but the system in which they work. That’s the argument Yale political scientist Juan Linz, who died last week, made in his two-volume series, “The Failure of the Presidential Democracy.”

As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate, Linz believed that systems like ours include “too much reliance on presidents.” Whereas, in parliamentary democracies (such as those in the United Kingdom or Germany) prime ministers are elected and “authority derives directly from majority support in parliament.”

In other words, citizens vote for parties instead of individuals and the party then chooses the prime minister, who is also a member of parliament. When his or her party loses the majority, a new cabinet is formed or an election is held. And, as Yglesias points out, “persistent legislative disagreement leads directly to new voting.”

Of course, the American system has worked quite well since our Constitution was crafted, and it’s not about to change. But it’s at once hard to argue that our version of democracy is somehow better than others found throughout the world. And Kelleher wasn’t advocating for some half-baked idea. In an interview with the Billings Gazette, he said the parliamentary system marginalizes lobbyists and special interests because members are less entrenched.

Congress and the president could tweak our system so shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises are less frequent. But that’s unlikely to happen in the short term. Instead we’ll continue to call the president power hungry and House Republicans sore losers and assume dysfunction is just part of democracy.

I suppose it could be worse. Taiwanese lawmakers, governing a country only Democratized since the 1990s, are well known for settling their differences by exchanging blows on the parliament floor. There have been at least three such fights since June, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Wait, maybe they’re on to something.