Watching the American system of governance grind to a halt -

Watching the American system of governance grind to a halt

Legislative insanity is bad, but chaos has its advantages


While Americans, dealing with a shutdown of their federal government, pine for our more sensible approach to federal government, Jonathan Kay says we should be thankful for the party discipline that rules our system. In considering the Throne Speech, Thomas Mulcair called for Senate abolition with his own allusion to the American system.

Harper is clinging to an old Conservative dream. He wants to radically change the way our system works. He wants to bring US-style gridlock into Canadian politics – two elected Houses blocking each other’s every move.

There are reasons to abolish our Senate and defend our party system, but let us not too casually drag our American friends into this discussion at what is not a great moment for them. Theirs is a system that is uniquely screwed up: by a lack of reasonable campaign finance restrictions, by gerrymandering, by the “silent filibuster” and by the “Hastert Rule.” (Or so it seems from the perspective of this casual viewer.) Americans could start calling for an end to their Senate or greater party discipline, but they might first try fixing the logistical and procedural factors that make it harder to maintain a functional system of governance. Or maybe they are simply experiencing what happens when one of the parties in a two-party system experiences a profound and messy existential crisis.

But, except on the most basic level, there’s not really a choice here. Or, put another way, we should refuse to choose between a lifeless legislature (with either an appended upper chamber of political appointees or no Senate at all) on the one hand and, on the other hand, insanity. We might just seek to impose a little bit more chaos on our system. Indeed, if the future of the election campaign is a tightly scripted roving infomercial, it might be imperative that we do so—that our MPs retake some of the autonomy that their U.S. counterparts now enjoy and that our legislature at least be a vital and interesting forum between those infomercials. It’s not that we should pine for our own version of Michele Bachmann, but that we should aspire for something more than competing teams of highly regimented sea animals.

As for the Senate, it is fair to wonder whether an elected upper chamber would result in a more dysfunctional Parliament. Any kind of fiddling with the system has ramifications. And so it would be interesting to know whether those who advocate for an elected Senate have any actual plan for preventing deadlocks or if they think we should be willing to accept them.


Watching the American system of governance grind to a halt

  1. The US system is based on deals, not parties. Dems can vote against Dems, Repubs can vote against Repubs…..and you have to ‘buy off’ each of them with a deal to get anything done.

    Plus of course companies can contribute millions to the individuals in Congress to get what they want done. Nobody stands for anything but money.

    This is no way to run a country. It’s not a democracy, it’s a yard sale.

    • The united states is NOT a democracy is what’s known as a Plutocracy – Democrat Republican makes no difference which is why Obama has completely carried out Bush Jr’s economic policy not one iota of change not a single one – not one high level banker in jail for all purposes it is one party state with factions – !!! – the states needs to tyake a page out of our book and start supporting a third party – then there just might be significat changes until then there will be no change no matter what party wins or who they have as president –

      • I dunno if having a third party has done much for us. Maybe the US needs one less party….the tea party. They’re crazy.

    • More trendy anti-American slams from the oh-so-original and deep EmilyOne. Ever think of seeing a doctor about that jerking knee?

      • You might try paying attention to the neighbour….they’ve invaded us 5X.

  2. The US senate is not causing this crisis. It is the House of Representatives, which is the equivalent of our House of Commons. The Democrats control the presidency and the Republicans control the House. It is roughly the equivalent of a minority government.

    The US senate can not kill legislation on a simple majority.

    Of course, we implement the crazy idea of giving an unelected senate, comprised of partisan crony appointments, equal power to the House of Commons. It can kill legislation any time it wants. There are no rules that govern its behavior, except an implicit threat the senate will be abolished if it really gets out of hand.

    So if the Liberals win in 2015, the Harper Conservative senate can repay them for all their past interference in Conservative legislation and then some. It will be interesting to see Trudeau’s response, giving he supports the status quo. He won’t be able to threaten abolition. That ship will have sailed. I guess he can gradually stack the senate back to a Liberal majority and continue the insane process.

    Canada’s interpretation of democracy is a joke.

    • There may be no rules as such, but isn’t it a fact that the senate had not previously defeated a HoC’s bill before the CPC voted down the the opposition parties CC bill? Seems to me it’s another one of those unwritten rules that did work until Harper decided they wouldn’t anymore.

      • I don’t think you can blame Harper for all the ills in this world. In 1989, the Senate defeated a bill establishing a new abortion law passed by the HoC during Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government tenure. That was one case, there may have been others.

      • The Liberal senate opposed Mulroney on Free Trade and the GST — policies the party now fully supports. Mulroney made the 1988 election about free trade as a result.

        The Liberal party also voted for a Harper bill on mandatory minimums in 2009; then the Liberal senate gutted the bill.

        So if the Liberals win in 2015, the radical Cons in the senate can push the limits of this traditional gentlemen’s agreement of limited (and arbitrary) senate interference in democratic government.

        Whoever controls the Conservative party after 2015 will control the senate; and the Liberals will likely only have a minority government. So it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture how things will turn out under those circumstances.

  3. If i understand Mr Brown properly, SH cannot open up the constitution to make changes to the senate or even negotiate an elected house, but he can and should open up the constitution in order to prevent gridlock in the event an he manages to finesse an elected senate. [ we aren’t allowed to call that elected however, since it wont change the fact the PM can still appoint people]

    I’ll never understand the mindset of the Harper crowd. Process seems to be entirely malleable or even disposable in their minds.

  4. This is good for the Americans. Maybe this will begin to change their thinking that thy are a special society.
    In addition it will allow the people to see first hand where their taxes are going. They may even gain some efficiencies out of this.
    Finally there may be some backlash about the fact that the government is shut down and they are still getting paid. If they want to shut the government down on principles then they should take the principalled stand.

  5. Aaron includes a single link to an obscure progressive site somehow proves that Americans long for a system like Canada’s.

  6. You’re missing the biggest oversight in Kay’s piece. Kay focuses on party discipline in his piece, and it’s certainly stronger in Canada than in the U.S. But the most important difference that has caused this crisis isn’t the strength of party discipline; it’s that the U.S. government operates on the principle of the separation of powers, and the Canadian one operates on the principle of responsible government. There, the legislature and executive *each* receive a democratic mandate directly, and if they reach deadlock, that’s too bad—everyone has to wait for someone’s term to expire. Here, only the legislature receives a direct democratic mandate, and the government (cabinet) is selected from among and is accountable to members of the legislature. Gridlock therefore cannot exist, because if the government is not supported by the House of Commons, it has to resign, either for new elections to be called, or for a new government to be made out of the existing MPs. The situation that arose in the U.S., then, cannot happen here, not because of party discipline, which is a related but distinct issue, but because of the differences between our constitutional structures.

    • That is Wherry’s point: that an elected Senate would have democratic legitimacy just as the House does and so the two could hit gridlock where, at present, they cannot.