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What’s wrong with American Politics? The Congress

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 19 October 2010

When looking at American politics, the Australian media generally focuses on the US president, giving the impression that in US domestic politics presidents are all powerful. This is far from the truth. Seen generously, presidents are the great communicators, proposers and persuaders; seen less generously they are semi-regal political celebrities. It is worth noting that only the US Congress can legislate, not the President. This makes the congresspersons the real doers (or blockers) in US domestic politics. For instance, if one is interested in America’s stance on global warming you need to follow the US Senate as it has generally been the greatest impediment to action. The Senate is where future legislative battles will be won or lost and the depressing reality is that on this issue and many others, the Senate is an increasingly ossified institution.

In recent months a number of America’s leading political commentators have written searching essays on the broken nature of the American political system (see here, here, here and here).

All of the essays emphasise just how dysfunctional the US Congress (particularly the US Senate) has become and how as a result passing legislation to address major policy issues like climate change, job creation, food safety, campaign finance and scores of other issues has become near impossible. These writers fear that a dysfunctional political system will create an increasingly dysfunctional society where frustration with politics and government will continue to rise. Some commentators also suggest that political gridlock could make America’s long prophesised demise a reality.


If things are bad now they are likely only to worsen in November when Americans are set to elect an even more divided, partisan and ineffectual Congress. Who should be blamed for this state of affairs? Should it be the Republican Party, Obama and his fellow Democrats, the American public or the system of government itself?

In our populist age it is not the done thing to blame the public for a government’s flaws (one wouldn’t want to be seen as elitist). However, the failure of the American public to engage with many important issues or with politics itself is an obvious failing. Take for instance the attention the very conservative Christine O’Donnell received recently for her election by 5,000 people in a Delaware primary election. If more people voted, wacky candidates such as O’Donnell - who rely on a base of committed supporters to get elected - would be less likely to succeed.

More concerning are polls that show that while most Americans consider the policies of the Democrats superior to those of the Republicans on most issues and view the Republican Party less favourably than the Democratic Party, the same polls show that a majority of these people plan to vote for the Republicans this November. The word “irrational” does come to mind. This is one of the great failings of the two-party system: when enough people are unhappy with the party in power they may well elect the other party even though they disagree with its solutions.

The real problem for America, in my view, is its system of government which is far from an ideal model. The system is both antiquated (in terms of modern democracies) and abused (to the point of comic-farce in terms of its parliamentary practices). The American system of government was set up to frustrate reform and to block legislation. The founders of the system worried a great deal about the centralisation of power, about unchecked power, and about the passions of the mob. However, they were high minded enough to believe that problems of national significance would be addressed by politicians of goodwill who would put the national interest above all else. They were highly critical of partisanship and created a system of government that had little place for political parties which they called “factions”.

Given that political parties are a necessary reality in large complex societies the American system of government and its parliamentary practices are in serious need of renovation.

The major site of weakness is the US Senate whose rules require bipartisan (and often unanimous) agreement to get things done. Individual Senators can easily stall progress by mounting objections, for example, to the time set for a vote on appointees or for when Senate committees should meet. Historically any Senator could mount a Filibuster (a speech designed to exhaust time) to block legislation.


These rules are important because the Senate is the premier legislative body in the US and official presidential appointments (such as Cabinet members, judges, and ambassadors) require Senate approval. Foreign treaties also require Senate approval. I don’t use the term “majority approval” here because it is more complicated than that. Once an item gets out of the Senate committees and a date for debate is set (a major feat in itself) then a Filibuster can be mounted on the Senate floor (or can be threatened). With 60 out of the 100 Senators needed to close down a Filibuster, it has become an increasingly common way to kill legislation.

In the 1960s, it is estimated that 5 per cent of Senate decisions were subject to Filibusters; this number has now risen to 60 per cent. The two major parties rarely have 60 Senators in their team so this has become a major problem. For example the Democrats presently have 57 Senators (and two independents who largely vote with them) and this number will most likely be reduced after this year’s Senate elections. Parliaments work better if they can pass legislation on a 50 per cent plus 1 basis. This is more democratic, it makes elections more meaningful and it creates a starker contrast between the actions of the government and the opposition. Of course certain constitutional safeguards are necessary but the American system overdoes the supposed “safeguards”.

A standard lament during the Obama presidency has been that the Republicans have become the “party of no” with their knee-capping behaviour in the Congress unfairly hindering the Obama presidency. As much as I disagree with many of the Republican Party’s policies, their parliamentary tactics have been strategically sound in terms of positioning themselves to win more seats in the 2010 election. They are in keeping with the anti-activist government philosophy that the Republicans often espouse and sometimes practice.

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First published on ABC's Unleashed on October 11, 2010.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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All articles by Brendon O'Connor

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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