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Oliver Park has published 9 articles

The curse of gridlock on US politics

Oliver Park looks at why America took so long to enact a measure to raise its debt ceiling and the slow-burn consequences of the US political system
Oliver Park on Monday 8th August 2011
Photograph: Hey Paul

The spotlight has been thrown on the workings of America’s political system in recent weeks, as politicians attempted to strike a deal to get the nation’s legally allowed debt ceiling to be raised. Even though dire predictions have been made over the impact the US failing to raise its debt ceiling would have on America’s economy, and indeed the world’s, a deal was only done at the last minute.

It seems staggering that politicians would let things slide so far. To an extent the current crisis is undoubtedly testament to how fiercely partisan American politics is at the moment. However, the current impasse is far from an aberration. In the 1990s Clinton faced many of the problems that Obama does now.

The fault - as President Obama recently alluded to when he stated that America was in danger of losing its AAA economic rating because it did not have a political system to match - lies in the political system set out by, that most revered of documents, the American constitution. Strange as it may appear considering America’s current position as the world’s pre-eminent democracy, the Founding Fathers were deeply fearful of the consequences of mob rule. Many of the constitution’s provisions, such as the federalist system, the bicameral legislature and the relationship between the president and congress stem largely from this fear.

In many ways this produced a workable and balanced political settlement. However, the decision to introduce staggered elections in order to counteract the likelihood that a political group would control all the institutions of government has had grave consequences: especially when coupled with a system that gives numerous ways and opportunities for potential pieces of legislation to be defeated.

Elections to the House of Representatives are held every two years, while one third of the Senate is elected at the same time. Given how quickly the political mood can change, this often (though far from always) results in a legislature which is profoundly different in its political outlook and aims to those of the executive, or in the two chambers being controlled by different parties. The political result is what Americans refer to as gridlock.

Gridlock tends to lead to the different parts of government; specifically the legislature and the executive, not just checking each other but actively stopping the other part from functioning effectively. Consequently it is extremely hard to get bills passed, especially if the House and the Senate are controlled by different parties - as is the case now. As the wrangle over raising the debt ceiling shows, this can grind to a halt the passage of even the most necessary bills. The sitting President can forget about trying to pass anything that might be deemed controversial, or anything overtly ideological. America’s political system is all but shut down and slumbers comatose until the next set of elections, which might produce a result which will end the political stalement.

The UK’s political system, for all its flaws, does at least avoid this. If anything some have argued that the legislature does not provide an effective enough check on the executive, as the executive in most instances is drawn from the party with an absolute majority in the House of Commons. This has at times led to a situation called by Lord Hailsham an ‘’elective dictatorship’’, where the majority party is more or less free to enact its manifesto unhindered. While this means checks on the executive are relatively weak, it does mean serious change can be enacted and a party will, at least in theory, be able to put into place the policies it campaigned upon. In America political debate too often focuses on the same old tired disagreements, while the ability to carry out radical change, which could be hugely beneficial for the country, is for most presidents nothing but a distant dream.

Instead the American system often leads to endless torturous negotiations over minutiae of policy and fossilises the political landscape. With the constitution regarded by most Americans as sacrosanct and the mechanisms for altering it extremely hard to fulfil, this is a situation that is both hard and unlikely to change. The American government, in what looks like an age of increasing partisanship, may be unable to carry out radical changes it might need to remain the world’s leading economy. Gridlock at the heart of the American political system may well lead to a broader stagnation.

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