Party loyalty: Too many voices and no loyalty translates to gridlock in the U.S.

David T Jones
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

There is an existential difference between our governments: the U.S. federal system and the Canadian parliamentary system have little philosophical compatibility.

These are design structure differences, and those that whinge about the “failures and shortcomings” of their respective systems need to understand root causes — and then perhaps shut up.

The United States is a republic, and its legislative structure is designed for gridlock. U.S. founding fathers were more fearful of dictatorship than of governing paralysis. Indeed, if a proposal doesn’t have very substantial support, it will invariably fail. Consequently, this reality is reflected in our intricate assortment of checks and balances with essentially co-equal Legislative/Congressional bodies (the House of Representatives and Senate), each elected and completely independent of the other. Consequently, either can defeat legislation passed by the other, regardless of the consequences. The Executive branch (President and cabinet) stands entirely separately with the president able to veto any legislation passed by Congress, action reversible only by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress.

Underpinning this schema for deadlock is the electoral reality that presidents are elected independently of Congress — and vice versa. Thus neither owes any loyalty to the other. Indeed, regardless of party label, individual members of Congress are de facto free agents. Loyalty to the president is a personal commitment, not institutional let alone obligatory. For example, in contrast to Canada, the president cannot appoint “his” candidate in a district, cannot expel someone selected by a primary election from nomination, and cannot jettison that individual from caucus. Thus if an individual wins the party nomination, regardless of whether he or she is personally odious, that individual can run as a member of the party and be elected.

Moreover, there is no party platform worthy of the name. To be sure, at every-four-year presidential conventions, a “platform” is devised but it is forgotten before its last nail is driven, and it would be risible for someone to complain that an individual isn’t acting in accord with the platform.

The upshot is that each member of Congress is a freelance/independent agent. Gathering a consensus for any issue is akin to herding chickens. Each individual “rooster” must be persuaded that such a position is in their interest and their feathers unruffled. Egos are made for stroking. To be sure, there are substantial numbers of representatives and senators who will axiomatically support/oppose a proposal depending on their party label. But such agreement reflects individual choice rather than compulsion, and even ostensible party loyalists can offer a “Trudeau salute” if they believe a proposal conflicts their personal interests. Hence, the need for deal cutting and arguments sweetened by bribes.

A Canadian power structure would be to die for so far as a U.S. president is concerned. One might imagine presidential willingness to sell his soul (little as it might be worth on current theological markets) and/or sacrifice a first born to secure control akin to that enjoyed by any Canadian prime minister, even in a minority government. Friendly dictator? We see “dictator” as the key word in that pairing with the powers exercised by the Canadian prime minister mind-boggling in dimension. In contrast, one could say that every U.S. government is a minority government so far as attempting to construct a coalition to pass legislation — with the exception that the president can be defeated on any/every issue without having to call an election.

Any student of Canadian politics knows Pierre Trudeau’s maxim that 100 yards from Parliament Hill, MPs are nobodies. They exist as physical projections of the party label and elected primarily as a reflection of such; an Independent is a pitiful creature in the Canadian system. Regardless of how personally popular, if forced out of the party (remember John Nunziata?), they usually are defeated in the next election.

Thus while a U.S. congressman is independent by definition, party support is hardly a given and each must devote substantial effort to raising funds not just to campaign against opposing party candidates, but to beat back challengers from their own party.

So a Canadian wanting to introduce a “forlorn hope” (private member) bill should immigrate to the United States where countless bills on every topic are introduced — and never move beyond the congressional letter to constituents announcing it. And if you don’t want to be a trained seal, don’t get in the water.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.