Watching Our Constipated Legislature Struggle to Crap Out a Government Made Me Glad We're Not a Parliamentary System
The up side is that there could be more down side
It gave me no joy to watch Kevin McCarthy struggle like a dwarf at a glory hole in his effort to win over the GOP’s Escaped Mental Patient Caucus. Ten years ago, I would have enjoyed that show. I would have popped popcorn and settled in for Schadenfreudefest 2013. I would have delighted in watching Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert torture poor John Boehner, who — as far as I’m concerned — will always be Dick York to McCarthy’s Dick Sargent. I would have counted down the minutes until 11:00 so I could watch a Daily Show segment called House of the Rising DUMB. Back then, the whole “the GOP can’t control the monster they created!” scenario felt wacky and fun.
I don’t like this narrative anymore. The dynamic just sucks now. We all know that the far right can’t be reasoned with; trying to reason with Matt Gaetz is like trying to Lindy Hop with a dead whale. Negotiations with the Freedom Caucus aren’t negotiations; the Caucus just forces people to be unwilling participants in their stupid performative bullshit — it’s like getting dragged on stage at an improv show. Charades like these epitomize dysfunctional governance. Personally, I want my government to be effective, efficient, and so boring that cable news shows have to run segments like “Olives: How Come Sometimes They Come in a Can But Other Times They’re in a Jar?”
I can say exactly one good thing about this debacle: It was rare. McCarthy is the first Speaker of the House to not be elected on the first ballot in a hundred years. The Freedom Caucus is able to pull this crap more often than they should but less often than they might. And I think this might be a good time to reflect on the fact that if the US system was more like systems that are common in Europe, this type of thing would happen more often.
Ah, Europe: The place that I, a liberal, am supposed to laud as a the epitome of enlightened thinking. It’s possible in some circles to win an argument just by saying “Well in Denmark (etcetera etcetera)…” And, to be sure, there are plenty of things I like about Europe — the printing press and Abba were great! Way to go, Europe! But one thing I don’t like is the European custom of negotiating the formation of a government after every election. It’s a recipe for chaos and it empowers extremists.
Let me briefly describe the process. In most European countries, the real power resides in the legislature. Presidents are few and relatively weak, while monarchs — where they exist — have been reduced to writing bitchy books about each other.
By custom or design, basically every country in Europe has multiple parties capable of winning some power. Yes, there is almost always a big, center-left party that was once about putting the heads of capitalist pigs on spikes but now mostly focuses on better commuter rail access, and there’s also a big, center-right party founded in 1946 for reasons that they don’t really like to talk about. But — unlike in the US — there are other real players in the game. There’s the Green Party and The Steampunk Party and the Greedo Shot First Party and countless others. There’s a party that exclusively advocates for the rights of earthworms and a party that thinks the center-right party lost their way around, oh…about 1946. These parties usually win a small number of seats in parliament, and that’s where the chaos begins.
Parliament’s first job after an election is forming a government. This — we should note — is a much bigger thing than McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus were just negotiating. Our fight was about control of one house in a bicameral legislature in a three-branch government. The fights in Europe are over the entire government. Every cabinet post, every committee assignment, every major part of every major institution up to and often including the prime ministership are negotiated. And there’s no guarantee that those negotiations will produce an outcome that anyone likes.
If no party wins a majority — and that happens all the time — then the smaller parties become kingmakers. Suddenly, the leader of the Puppets Are People, Too Party is the prettiest girl at the dance. In order to get to a majority, the leader of a party that won, say, 48 percent of the vote has to kiss the feet of a party that put up Tulsi Gabbard-esque numbers in the last election. But in this scenario, the Puppets Are People, Too Party holds a few crucial cards, so, to make a long story short, meet your new ambassador to the UN:
If parliament can’t reach a power sharing agreement, then the next step is usually to call new elections. This is typically about as popular as a rectal hemorrhage, because everyone just voted. They voted, they watched their politicians bicker for weeks or months, and then they were told to vote again. This is a boon for the Burn Everything Down Party, which exists in every country. Oh, and in between votes, the country had a semi-functional, placeholder government, and nothing got done. It’s a chaotic period, and that can mean “chaotic by Greek standards,” which is a level of chaos that in most of the world exists only in theoretical physics.
Some people have proposed changes that would make Congress more like European parliaments. Various tweaks to electoral systems would give third parties a better shot, and I don't necessarily hate those proposals; they all have pros and cons. But one thing I consider to be firmly in the “con” column is the likelihood that dysfunctional chaos like we saw last week would become more common.
The only thing worse than Matt Gaetz is a less controllable Matt Gaetz. And the GOP almost certainly has more leverage over the Freedom Caucus as a faction within the GOP than they would if they were a separate party. One concession McCarthy made to finally win the speakership involved changes to Republican-aligned super PAC spending; that wouldn't be possible if the Freedom Caucus was its own party. It's also true that a right wing nut with grand ambitions needs to be a Republican; you won't become governor, senator, or even president as part of the Fluoride Is Brain Control Party. So, there’s an incentive to not totally burn your bridges with party bigwigs. As intransigent as the holdouts were, they probably would have been even more stubborn as a separate party.
I'm dreading the debt ceiling showdown. We're sure to see more obstinacy and grandstanding from the fuckwit brigade. The optimal amount of time spent wondering what's going on in Marjorie Taylor Greene's head is zero seconds, and we've sadly blown past that and are due to add more time, still. That is truly unfortunate. And it would be even more unfortunate if this type of extremist-fueled chaos was a more regular and more consequential part of our system.