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The Speaker Fight Makes Congress Look Like Parliament, and That’s Not a Pretty Sight

American liberals’ enthusiasm for parliamentary governance was dwindling already. This should finish it off.

Congressman Matt Gaetz
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Congressman Matt Gaetz (center) talks to fellow members during elections for speaker of the House on January 4.

The fratricidal leadership contest unfolding in the House of Representatives carries obvious lessons for Republicans, but since you already know what these are, and since Republicans probably won’t heed them anyway, I won’t enumerate them here. Much more interesting, I think, is the lesson for Democrats, or anyway for a certain kind of Democrat, and more specifically a certain kind of liberal. That lesson is not to put your faith in parliamentary governance.

The House is struggling to find a speaker candidate who can win a majority vote. This is very unusual. In every Congress going back to the era of Rudolph Valentino and the Model T, choosing a speaker has required only a single vote. This time, it’s required six, with more on the way because the leading candidate, Republican leader Kevin “I’ve Earned This Job” McCarthy, can’t secure a majority. We haven’t seen anything like it since 1923, when the House required nine successive votes to secure a majority for incumbent Speaker Frederick Gillett, a Massachusetts Republican. Taking the hint, Gillett ran for Senate the following year, winning on the coattails of President Calvin Coolidge.

But leadership fights like this aren’t at all unusual in parliamentary democracies. In essence, McCarthy is struggling to form a government. In a parliamentary democracy this is done by putting together a party coalition, as Bibi Netanyahu did last month in Israel. You get other parties to join your party’s coalition by making various deals to share power. It’s a slow and painstaking process, as any American who’s watched the Danish TV series Borgen well understands. That’s sort of what McCarthy is trying to do, though in his case he’s making various deals to share power with rivals from within his own party.

That’s one way the current situation compares to parliamentary governance. Another is how a single party in parliament with a governing majority, as Republicans possess in the new House, replaces its prime minister. This requires a sequence of votes by the ruling party, as occurred in October when Conservative Party member Rishi Sunak became prime minister of the United Kingdom, replacing Conservative Party member Liz Truss, who not quite two months earlier had replaced Conservative Party member Boris Johnson. You might say McCarthy is in the process of finding out whether he’s going to be the American Sunak, the American Johnson, or, God forbid, the American Truss (or something even more pathetic, since even Truss won the job, however briefly).

Parliamentary governance used to inspire envy among a certain type of nerdy American liberal because it tightens party bonds, eliminates bicameral deadlock (technically, the House of Lords makes Great Britain bicameral, but its powers are vestigial), and merges legislative and executive branches, enabling governments actually to get things done. “Under our separation of powers,” Richard L. Strout wrote in this magazine under the byline TRB back in 1943,

antagonism between Congress and the executive is chronic. The basic fact in Washington under the division of powers is the absence of final responsibility. You can never fix the blame. And the delays are interminable.

Strout continued to sound variations on this theme for 40 years, at which point he was succeeded as TRB columnist by the similarly Anglophilic Michael Kinsley, who in turn was followed by a succession of writers of whom I was the terminus. I was a little sweet on parliamentary governance too, as demonstrated, for instance, in this 1984 book review, and, more recently, when I named my Substack newsletter Backbencher. Jeet Heer, a Canadian, recommended parliamentary governance to TNR readers as recently as six years ago.

If I speak of parliamentophilia in the past tense, it’s because events of the past decade reduced its appeal. First came British Prime Minister David Cameron’s catastrophic 2013 pledge to hold a referendum on whether the U.K. should remain in the European Union. Next came the 2016 referendum itself, which the Brexit Leavers won. Next came Boris Johnson, a catastrophe unto himself. Next came Liz Truss, who tanked the economy and inhabited No. 10 a mere 44 days. Meanwhile, Israel’s parliamentary government somehow couldn’t rid itself of the spectacularly corrupt Bibi Netanyahu, whose far-right coalition government is its own political, judicial, and humanitarian catastrophe.

Now comes the GOP’s leadership crisis. To win the speakership, McCarthy promised his enemies that they could call a snap vote at any time to oust him, lowering the threshold to trigger such a vote from a majority of Republican House members to only five (and, later, to one). McCarthy also promised to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, to put more Freedom Caucus wingnuts on the Rules Committee, and to call a vote imposing term limits on House members. These concessions hardened his detractors’ conviction that he lacks a spine. Indeed, McCarthy was one vote further from the necessary 218 on Wednesday (201) than he was on Tuesday (202). As I write, we’re waiting to see whether McCarthy’s most recent round of concessions Wednesday night altered this pattern.

None of this will make liberals long for an American parliament. Imagine if this Republican Party crisis weren’t confined to one of two legislative chambers in a three-branch government otherwise controlled by Democrats. Imagine that instead of tying up the House, Republican dysfunction tied up the House, the Senate, and the White House, bending all three to the will of extremists, as would be the case if we had a real parliamentary system.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine it. For two years, from 2017 to 2019, Republicans controlled all three. Separation of powers dwindled as Republican party loyalty (or cowardice) erased constitutional divisions between Congress and the White House. Trump was, in effect, prime minister. It was really bad! The government got shut down twice, the second time for the longest period in American history (35 days). Corporations and the rich received huge tax cuts, and banking regulations enacted after the 2008 housing crash were watered down. Congress came close to repealing Obamacare, with no plausible replacement in sight. All this happened under the relatively stable speakership of Paul Ryan (who didn’t especially want the job but got drafted after McCarthy’s first attempt to become speaker tanked).

Perhaps it’s unfair to blame parliamentary politics for current miseries inflicted on the U.K., Israel, and our House of Representatives. A more obvious culprit is the spread of hard-right tribalism across the globe, increasingly flavored with the sort of indiscriminate disgust for authority on display in the House speakership fight. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page recognized that “the dissenters don’t have any major policy differences with McCarthy or a plausible alternative candidate.” They just dislike the guy and want to mess with him to show they can.

This is the kind of rude free-for-all that many Americans, including myself, used to envy when we watched members of the British Parliament tear one another to pieces during Question Time. Back then, the governments of the U.K. and Israel seemed sufficiently stable to indulge such vicious warfare. Today that’s only barely true in the U.K. and not true at all in Israel. Here in the United States, this week’s House chaos gives me a new respect for unparliamentary checks and balances and the government gridlock they create. They come in awfully handy when hard-right politicians lose their shit.