The Deleterious Effects of Bipartisanship and the Separation of Powers on Good Government

Recall Election in Wisconsin: Wisconsin Would Have Solved Its Political Standoff Last Year Under A Parliamentary System!

Governor Walker of Wisconsin now faces a recall election, scheduled for June 5th. I couldn’t help but conclude that if Wisconsin operated under Responsible Government, the political standoff between the Governor and the legislature would have been resolved last year. Either Prime Minister Walker and his government would have succeeded in shepherding their legislative program through a majority legislature, and the Democratic Official Opposition would have opposed him and pledged to repeal those policies when they next formed government, or a minority legislature would have defeated Prime Minister Walker’s government by voting against his austerity budget, withdrawing confidence in his government, and promoting him to advice dissolution and fresh elections. Either way, the controversy over Walker government’s budget would have been resolved within 6 weeks.[1]

However, the political systems of the several American states and of the central power in Washington still operate under the basic premise of the18th-century British model known as the Balanced Constitution: the strict separation of the executive and legislature. In contrast, Westminster parliamentarism evolved after the American Revolution to ensure the integration and inter-dependence of the executive and legislature.

Two types of recall are possible under the American system: legislative recall and executive recall. When the Governor becomes the object of recall, the resultant recall election can be characterized as the equivalent of “withdrawing confidence” in the Governor because of disagreements over his policies or performance. The legislature itself cannot remove the executive, so the recall mechanism acts as the only recourse. Recall thus by-passes the legislature and allows the electorate to withdraw or reaffirm confidence in the Governor. This class of recall would be covered by the conventions of responsible government, as well as intra-party and caucus dynamics, in a parliamentary system. Recall could also apply to individual legislators. In this case, their constituents would more likely want to express their indignation over the personal corruption and/or incompetence of their elected representative, given that legislators do not execute policy.

I also view recall as a democratic form of impeachment, to which the President may become subject: instead of giving the lower house the power to try and the upper house the power to convict the head of state, recall allows the electorate to fulfill this role, and thus also replaces legal enforceability with political enforceability. To extend the analogy, the organization of the recall election “puts the governor on trial”, and the electorate may determine whether to “convict” by voting against or to “acquit” by voting for.

Under the congressional-presidential political system, recall intrinsically makes sense as an innovative check and balance in the absence of Responsible Government: the legislature cannot withdraw its confidence from the governor and force him to resign or to advise that the legislature be dissolved in order to permit fresh elections. The recall mechanism therefore leaves the task of removing the governor to the electorate, because under the American system the people are the sovereign. In contrast, recall does not correspond well to responsible parliamentary government, where the legislature itself is the sovereign, because the prime minister and cabinet only remain in office as long as they command the support of a majority of representatives in the legislature.

Bipartisanship vs Responsible Government

This panel on Fox News, with former Senator Evan Bayh, highlighted what I consider the inherent flaw of the American political system: these panelists could not accept that Congress is “broken” because the presidential system of government promotes dysfunction and deadlock, and thus the diffusion of responsibility. Who takes responsibility in the American system when things go awry, such as the ever-expanding national debt? The President may plausibly blame the Congress, and the Congress in turn could plausibly blame the President. Under Responsible Parliamentary Government, the Prime Minister and Cabinet must take responsibility for all policies and expenditures before parliament. When monies are misappropriated or corruption exposed, we know exactly whom to blame and can vote accordingly.

Bayh inadvertently highlights why “more bipartisanship” has caused many political problems and why it would only continue to compound them. Responsible Government necessitates adversarialism between a Government that introduces and takes responsibility for all policies and expenditures and an Opposition that institutionalizes political dissent through opposition to the government’s policies while maintaining loyal to the State or the Constitution. Dan Gardner characterized bipartisanship as the American political system’s attempt to replicate the political neutrality of a hereditary monarch: neither the Republicans or Democrats could ever transcend politics – and nor should they – so they collude with one another in an artificial show of unity, or in institutional opposition toward the Presidency.[2] Bipartisanship and this notion of setting aside partisanship only encourage self-aggrandizing Congressional representatives who each may plausibly claim that their ideas would everyone to “come together as Americans and do what’s best for the country.” Bipartisanship thus encourages the worst form of political cynicism and mendacity: dressing up one’s personal political interest as the country’s interest, and then claiming that anyone who opposes those views therefore would harm the country as a whole. Political and policy debates can thus easily degenerate into questions of loyalty to the country and fidelity to the constitution.

Bayd also inadvertently shows that politicians take refuge in the comfort of platitude and resort to sloganeering in order to subvert substantive discussion and debate.

Question: We seem to live under a two-party dictatorship. What are you thoughts on that?

Answer: It’s true that we have two parties, and too often they’re polarized and unable to find common ground. I’d say to both Democrats and Republicans: ‘Look, we understand that you’re both part of a party, that’s fine. We understand that you have some principles and probably some ideological underpinnings – we respect that, too. But at the end of the day, you gotta [sic] put the country ahead of your party and ahead of your ideology. If you don’t, we’ll vote for someone else.’

I generally oppose bipartisanship because politics by nature is and should be divisive. In fact, without the disagreement and dissent that comes from persons who sincerely hold opposing views and beliefs, politics would cease to exist altogether.

The Balanced Constitution instead promotes a perpetual inter-institutional opposition between the branches of the political system – the executive and legislature, Presidency and Congress. Responsible Government encourages opposition to policies and distinctions between the parties in Government and Opposition; perhaps more importantly, Responsible Government institutionalizes loyal opposition and legitimate dissent such that both Government and Opposition act in the best interests of the country by offering competing alternatives. In that sense, this system of government better incorporates the inherent divisiveness of politics.

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[1] Eugene Forsey, How Canadians Govern Themselves 7th Ed (Ottawa: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2007), 25-27.
Unfortunately, the specific column has sunken into the bowels of dead URLs.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Loyal Opposition, Parliamentarism v Presidentialism, Separation of Powers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Deleterious Effects of Bipartisanship and the Separation of Powers on Good Government

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”, By Mann and Ornstein | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”, By Mann and Ornstein | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

  3. Pingback: The Contradictory American Presidency: Why An Elected Executive Head of State Cannot Become a Uniter, But Only a Divider | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

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