America’s republican system of checks and balances is receiving an awful beating recently from health reformers, economists, and currency speculators. Now, it’s even looking passé in the eyes of fiscal conservatives and parliamentary democrats to the north.
This was brutally confirmed by Jonathan Kay, the thoughtful editor of The National Post, in his column “Why Harper Can Trim a Budget and Obama Can’t.”
Kay claims that Canada’s secret weapon is its Parliamentary system: Prime Minister Harper has a majority in the House of Commons and can get tough, necessary things done; President Obama doesn’t have a majority in Congress and, so, he can’t cut spending or raise taxes.
Kay believes that—in the economic sphere—the broader powers conferred on Canada’s executive by Parliamentary majorities have been a blessing and have allowed Canada to enjoy stability and greater prosperity, at least over the last couple of decades.
A fresh Parliamentary majority—that’s doing what you want—can be a beautiful sight. I love roses, sunsets, and happy children too, but don’t be fooled. Life north of the 49th can be dangerous and frustrating as well.
The Canadian and United States federations do not hold their collective breaths between electoral majorities in the House of Commons or between those occasions the President easily assembles majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both countries carry on satisfactorily—or neither country would be intact today.
Furthermore, majorities don’t just free up new executives to put their respective country’s right—to fix the errors of previous minority and majority governments—they also give them the same license to make their own mistakes.
During the financial crisis of 2008-09, neither Bush, nor Obama, nor Harper enjoyed secure legislative majorities when they implemented massive stimulus programs and unprecedented bailouts. Nevertheless, they acted successful—well before the European governments of various designs.
Sure. Obama couldn’t possibly get a significant package of tax increases and spending cuts through Congress this year, or in 2010 or in 2011. The moderate conservative measures Kay welcomes in Canada now, however, would still be economically premature in the United States. Sometimes, marking time is common sense, not “gridlock.”
Most important, let’s recall how the US budget got into a chronic $trillion-plus deficit in the first place.
Most of the deficit today that was actually created in Washington, rather than by the recession, was approved by massive majorities in Congress—majorities that happily did the bidding of President George W. Bush.
The War in Iraq, the Prescription Drug Plan for Senior Citizens, and the massive Income Tax cuts were not the grudging excretions of divided government.
Majorities, of course, are an essential part of the survival of the checks-and-balance systems of both democracies. If big issues can’t finally be resolved, countries decline, fall apart—or turn to brutes. Furthermore, the knowledge that the electorate will get fed up with excessive partisanship and will eventually want someone to decide often forces compromise—even “grand bargains.”
Nevertheless, let’s not romance majority government as an end state. At first, planners and reformers love working for them, but after awhile, majority governments stop listening carefully. They find it increasingly easy to talk big and, then, they start making big mistakes.