Watching the American system of governance grind to a halt

Legislative insanity is bad, but chaos has its advantages
The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 2, 2013, on the day after a compromise bill passed the US Congress, avoiding the "fiscal cliff." The agreement raises taxes on the rich and puts off automatic $109 billion federal budget cuts for two months. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

While Americans, dealing with a shutdown of their federal government, pine for our more sensible approach to federal government, Jonathan Kay says we should be thankful for the party discipline that rules our system. In considering the Throne Speech, Thomas Mulcair called for Senate abolition with his own allusion to the American system.

Harper is clinging to an old Conservative dream. He wants to radically change the way our system works. He wants to bring US-style gridlock into Canadian politics – two elected Houses blocking each other’s every move.

There are reasons to abolish our Senate and defend our party system, but let us not too casually drag our American friends into this discussion at what is not a great moment for them. Theirs is a system that is uniquely screwed up: by a lack of reasonable campaign finance restrictions, by gerrymandering, by the “silent filibuster” and by the “Hastert Rule.” (Or so it seems from the perspective of this casual viewer.) Americans could start calling for an end to their Senate or greater party discipline, but they might first try fixing the logistical and procedural factors that make it harder to maintain a functional system of governance. Or maybe they are simply experiencing what happens when one of the parties in a two-party system experiences a profound and messy existential crisis.

But, except on the most basic level, there’s not really a choice here. Or, put another way, we should refuse to choose between a lifeless legislature (with either an appended upper chamber of political appointees or no Senate at all) on the one hand and, on the other hand, insanity. We might just seek to impose a little bit more chaos on our system. Indeed, if the future of the election campaign is a tightly scripted roving infomercial, it might be imperative that we do so—that our MPs retake some of the autonomy that their U.S. counterparts now enjoy and that our legislature at least be a vital and interesting forum between those infomercials. It’s not that we should pine for our own version of Michele Bachmann, but that we should aspire for something more than competing teams of highly regimented sea animals.

As for the Senate, it is fair to wonder whether an elected upper chamber would result in a more dysfunctional Parliament. Any kind of fiddling with the system has ramifications. And so it would be interesting to know whether those who advocate for an elected Senate have any actual plan for preventing deadlocks or if they think we should be willing to accept them.