October 04, 2012

Prime ministers, presidents and principles

One thing last night’s presidential debate illustrated is that prime ministers, except where directly elected like in Israel, simply have to have more principles than presidential candidates. (Along with that, as Fact Check shows, the debates, here in the US, lead to gotcha moments and zingers, rather than detailed proposals about planned future policies.)

When you're running to represent a party, not just yourself, and executive and legislative are combined and you can't blame gridlock, you have to stand by at least a few principles, not just for the public and votes, but to control your own backbenchers. Now, the difference isn’t absolute. In the UK, MPs within the Labour Party disliked Tony Blair in part for running “presidential-style” campaigns.

But, it is largely true. The British have had debates between prime minister candidates, and they’re nothing like American presidential debates.

And, beyond that, Britain has the unique custom of “question time” on Fridays.

That said, this isn't totally true, even in coalition governments. Why Nick Clegg still has the Lib Dems in coalition in the UK after the failure of the proportional representation referendum, I don't know.

Could the US become slightly more parliamentary? While still retaining aspects of its presidential system? That is, becoming like France?

Yes, although it would require some constitutional amendments as well as simple changes of law.

My modest proposals:
1.     Up the House of Representatives to, say, 800 people. Of those, we would increase state-by-state single member districts from 435 to 600. To boost third parties, we would proportionally elect the other 200 off a national list, similar to what Germany does. (That part would require constitutional amendment.)
2.     Add, either by regions or nationally, 50 Senators to be elected proportionally off a national list. (Constitutional amendment.)
3.     Remove the Senate’s power to amend money bills, therefore putting the power of the purse more firmly in the House’s hands. (Constitutional amendment.)
4.     End the Senate’s filibuster power.
5.     Increase House terms to four years. (Constitutional amendment.) Possibly increase Senate terms to eight years, or else reduce them to four. (Constitutional amendment.)

Those few changes would not weaken Senate power too much, so, hopefully would not raise too many hackles. The third-party issues would not threaten a vast third-party wave, at least not immediately, and so would not draw two-party opposition, I think.

The money bill issues, and modest weakening of Senate power, might force the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader wanting to become Speaker to actually campaign on their own, by parties. And, it would force the presidential nominees to co-ordinate policy more with House leaders.

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