Snowe’s claim that Congress is like a parliament has basis in recent history

While it may appear the parliamentary system has arrived in the United States, there is one major reason it can’t happen.
Olympia Snowe speaks an event
Senator Olympia Snowe. Photo by John Clark Russ of the Bangor Daily News.

Last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe said, “We are becoming more like a parliamentary system, where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side.”

The essence of the parliamentary system, as it is practiced in Canada, Great Britain and most other major democracies, is party discipline.  Legislators must support their leaders, whatever their own political views, and the political parties usually offer sharply contrasting policies.

Under the parliamentary system, the head of the government is also the head of the party controlling the legislative body – the parliament — so party members get their directions straight from the top.

Political moderates may try to influence their party’s policies, but they cannot vote with the opposition, except on the few issues when discipline is relaxed, and they are allowed to vote their consciences.

After the 1994 U. S. elections, the Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives. Speaker Newt Gingrich, an architect of their victory, got his party to go along with strict party discipline, which clearly increased its effectiveness in pursuing GOP policies.  In successive House elections, moderate Republicans were replaced by conservative party members or by moderate Democrats.  As a result, the disciplined House GOP became solidly conservative.

In the Senate, much the same winnowing took place, reducing the number of Republican moderates.  Coupled with the increasingly frequent use of the filibuster, which requires a super majority of 60 senators even to get to vote on an issue, a Republican minority did not need a majority to block legislation.

President Barack Obama’s health legislation could only pass because, at the time of the vote, Senate Democrats had enough votes to prevent a filibuster.

While this may look like the parliamentary system has arrived in the United States, there is one major reason it can’t happen.  The president, unlike prime ministers elsewhere, is not a member of Congress.  The Founding Fathers opted for the checks and balances in a system where there is a clear dividing line between the executive and legislative functions.

The clash between a president of one party and a Congress dominated by the other party can result in deadlock.  Right now, little legislation can pass unless the political price of opposing the other side is too high.  The prospects for agreement between the two parties in this election year are widely regarded as slim.

The Democratic Party has historically included widely divergent elements and cannot impose the GOP brand of parliamentary discipline.  Humorist Will Rogers once quipped, “I am not a member of an organized political party.  I’m a Democrat.”

Still, faced with a solid GOP opposition, the Democrats have tightened their own congressional discipline.

As a result, compromise has all but died.  No longer do moderate members on both sides — those who can see at least some merit in the opposition’s positions — negotiate compromises.

Moderates in the minority would formerly say to the majority, “If you can make changes in your bill to meet some of my concerns, I will vote for your bill.”  Sen. Snowe found with the health care bill that Democrats would not seek her support when they believed they could pass it without her.

Even worse from her point of view, her own party did not want her to seek such compromises.

“It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of ‘Survivor’ – you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you’re no longer welcome in the tribe,” she wrote in 2009.

She called for a Republican Party with room for more views.  “We can’t continue to fold our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand,” she wrote.

In 2009, the Republicans were coming off a stinging electoral defeat.  Two years later, they regained control of the House, giving GOP leaders a sense that disciplined conservatism was what voters wanted, leading them to push Snowe’s views aside.  This year, the question is once again before the voters.

Snowe was caught between her approach — based on political moderation and compromise — and the demands of party discipline.  Moderation is what Mainers have traditionally favored.

For example, through a broadly supported, bipartisan agreement, the Maine Legislature recently adopted measures to bring the Health and Human Services budget more nearly into balance.  While Republican Gov. Paul LePage might have expected a disciplined GOP legislature to force the Democrats to fall in line with his proposals, what he received was the product of the politics of compromise.


Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
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