How can we understand that stalwart band of forty Republican nay-sayers in the Senate, determined to prevent health reform no matter how necessary, determined to embarrass their president no matter how much they embarrass their country? The Republicans are behaving as if they have lost their way and somehow turned up in the British parliamentary system. They are like mean kids who show up for every baseball game with no gloves or bats but only skates and hockey sticks.
The Republicans have deluded themselves about the American way of legislating for some time. The delusion began in 1994 when the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of Congress. Our political parties usually run on party platforms only during presidential years but Gingrich had every Republican House candidate sign a Contract with America this time that amounted to a congressional party platform. Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, should have known better; he prided himself as a scholar of American history and government. But, as soon as his party won a majority in both the House and Senate, he laid aside history and tradition and struck the pose of a prime minister, intent on enacting the Contract as fast as he could.
If we had a British parliamentary system, he would have been prime minister. In Britain, the leader of the party that wins the election for the House of Commons takes over as prime minister, the chief executive of the government. Of course, Gingrich did not take over the US government as chief executive. But he began to act as if Bill Clinton in the White House was only a figurehead, sort of like the Queen of England, though more troublesome.
The Speaker and the President reached an impasse over spending bills, and much of the government shut down. Social security checks did not show up in the mail, passport and trademark applications piled up, federal museums and buildings closed. The shutdown infuriated Americans, and most of their anger fell on Gingrich. The Republican Congress retreated, the impasse ended, and Gingrich stopped making believe he was the prime minister.
As soon as President Obama took office, the Republicans in Congress, adopting a theme song of Groucho Marx, decided whatever it was, they were against it. That makes a lot of sense in the British parliamentary system. The job of the minority in the House of Commons is to oppose. It is known as the Opposition and its leader is known as the Leader of the Opposition. In fact, the minority has little to do except oppose.
Under the parliamentary system, the prime minister and his cabinet can usually enact any legislation they like. They enjoy relentless party discipline. A defeat for a government’s major bill usually means a dissolution of the House of Commons and new elections. Members of the majority party may dislike a government bill but they fear a vote against it may result in immediate elections that could unseat them. So they vote aye without thinking much about it.
The Opposition, on the other hand, has practically no influence on legislation. It always votes no, makes an awful lot of noise, and hopes the shouting may persuade voters to change sides in the next elections (which must come no later than every five years).
That is pretty much the way the Republicans behaved throughout 2009. The health bill became especially important. If they could bring down the bill, they felt, they could weaken Obama so much they could bring him down in 2012. They had turned the bill into what the British would call a vote of confidence in the chief of government.
The Republicans did not hide their strategy. “If we are able to stop Obama on this,” Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said, “it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Once that strategy was set down, it demanded fierce party loyalty and some shameless behavior, on both sides.
To keep their 40 votes together, the Republicans had to persuade wavering colleagues that upending Obama was more important than the provisions of the bill. This argument was etched by an obvious threat. Anyone who strayed would be treated as a traitor and expect feverish opposition from the Palinites and other radicals in the next Republican primary.
The most disappointing machinations came from Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. She had angered fellow Republicans by voting for a similar bill in committee and had no sensible reason for voting against the bill on the floor of the Senate. She came up with the lame excuse that more time was needed to study new provisions.
But time was being used by the Republicans not to clarify but to fulminate, shouting misleading claims about costs and the threats to Medicare. The cruelty of the dispiriting march of time was underscored by Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, when he told the Senate, “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote.” That “somebody” was taken to mean 92-year-old Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who had to come in by wheelchair to vote. If he had died or collapsed into a coma before Christmas Eve, the Democrats would have lacked their 60th vote.
The Democrats were forced to act just as mindless as the Republicans. Faced with a solid opposition of 40, the Democrats had to wiggle and squirm and beg and bribe. To keep their 60 votes together (of course, in the British system, they would have only had to win by 51%, not 60%, but that is another issue), the Democrats had to placate two recalcitrant and grand-standing legislators, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who lines up with the Democrats.
Under the American system, Congress and the President are separate branches of government. Everyone — even Republicans — learns that in school. That is a peculiarity and the genius of the American way. We do not have a British parliamentary system where the majority always disposes and the minority always opposes. That kind of arrangement would not only devalue Congress; it would make it very boring.
The American form of government puts a responsibility on the members of Congress to deliberate and come up with what is best for the country. That responsibility weakens party discipline. There was a time, in fact, when many Republicans of what was known as the Wednesday Club often voted with the Democrats and many southern Democrats voted with the Republicans. It is true that each party has become more homogenous (or more ideological) these days. But I cannot believe that all 60 Democrats really favored the health reform bill and all 40 Republicans really despised it.
Most of the blame for the present foolishness lies with the Republicans. It is time for them to set aside their illusions and stop making believe they are sitting in London.