Is coalition government possible in the US system?
October 3, 2010 11:48 PM   Subscribe

In many advanced democracies around the world these days, coalition governments are in place (Japan, England and Australia just to name a few). Is it 'technically' possible in the US - given the rise of 'third party' candidates (or 'fourth' 'fifth' whatever ...) - for Congress to operate in that fashion? Positions like 'House Majority/Minority Leader' and suchlike seem to be predicated on the existence of two opposing blocks. Could either the House or Senate operate if there were (say) three large parties dividing up the seats, instead of two?
posted by woodblock100 to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In theory it is absolutely possible. The positions you're talking about like House Majority Leader or Minority Whip or whatever are not government positions, they're party positions. They have no official standing or meaning and Congress existed long before either party began bestowing those titles on anyone.

In practice, however, it would take a major overhaul of the electoral system in the USA before a third party gained enough traction to make this an issue. We don't have a parliamentary system.
posted by Justinian at 11:57 PM on October 3, 2010

Yes it is - remember that the current situation in the UK is exceptional (the last coalition government was Winston Churchill's WW2 government in the 1940s!). And Japan was run by a single party for most of its post-WW2 history.
posted by plep at 11:59 PM on October 3, 2010

The position Senate majority/minority leader is not defined in the Constitution. Actually, it only started around 1920. Speaker of the House is a constitutionally defined role, but it's just a matter of party politics that the Speaker is always the leader of the majority party. If a large number of third party candidates were elected to Congress, they'd probably be form a coalition of some sort with whatever party they were most closely aligned. As it is right now, the socialist senator from Vermont caucuses with the democrats.
posted by bluejayk at 12:00 AM on October 4, 2010

Even a legislature which has a coalition government usually functions as two opposing blocs when it votes. In Australia, the UK and Ireland, the Government side of the house is a coalition, but there is still an opposition (which might also contain two or more parties). In the US, as I understand it, there is no "Government" side in the House because the Executive is not in the House. In the UK and systems derived from it, the Executive (that is, the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet) are also members of the legislature. In the US, the members of Cabinet and the President are not congressmen or senators. It's a long-established fact that a majority in the House of Representatives of the same political party as the President doesn't necessarily help the President that much because party discipline seems (to an outsider anyway) much weaker than in the UK or Australia.

In short, I think the US Congress could function if split between three or more major parties. In fact I suspect only the political journalists would notice the difference.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:07 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Surely. It is possible and for all practical purposes the US experiences that right now.

The reason having coalition governments is a really big deal in countries like Japan and England is because they use the parliamentary system to determine who operates the government. For example the British ministers of parliament (MPs) all get together and elect the Prime Minister who then runs the government until the MPs decide its time for a new one. Thus when it takes more than one party to achieve a majority and elect the prime minister just operating the day to day tasks of the government becomes much more complicated and political.

In the United States, on the other hand, the executive brach is entirely separate from the legislative. The President is elected separately from the members of Congress and thus they can be of separate parties. It also means that achieving majorities in either the House of Representatives or the Senate is really a bill to bill exercise for the most important matters. (One important exception is voting for speaker and majority leader giving the ability to set the legislative agenda to one person in each chamber.)

In today's political atmosphere I would claim that while there are only 2 parties there are certainly 3 strong coalitions. I count the two wings of the democratic party as separate entities. They are sometimes called the progressives and the blue dogs. I'm not sure where blue dog comes from but they are the more pro business democrats who probably would be republicans if the republicans weren't so bat shit insane. Add the two Democratic coalitions into the mix with the Republicans (and after this election there will be the "normal" Republicans and the tea partying Republicans) and its truly amazing that anything gets accomplished.
posted by Glibpaxman at 12:08 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

The US Constitution was written by people with a certain distate of British parliamentary factionalism, and the blueprint doesn't necessitate a party system, let along a two-party system: "majority" and "minority" don't have to map exactly to parties, and often haven't done so, because they're not analogous to "government" and "opposition".

Many scholars of comparative government would argue that the two US parties already operate like coalitions -- or at least long-term party alliances, like the Liberals and Nationals in Australia, or the CDU-CSU in Germany). While the partisan spectrum has tightened since the southern realignment, there's still a lot more distance between wings, and nowhere near the same party discipline as Westminster or Ottawa. A grouping like the Blue Dogs would likely be its own party in a multi-party system, with formal and informal agreements covering its support on confidence and supply, then on an issue-by-issue basis.

So a roughly equal tripartite division might require some revisions to House and Senate rules, but not necessarily so, and the rules which would need tweaking are constitutionally enabled without being constitutionally stipulated. The stipulated ones -- on the passage of laws, the confirmation of appointees, etc. -- tend to reflect a binary choice, regardless of how many formal parties there are.
posted by holgate at 12:12 AM on October 4, 2010

To restate Glibpaxman in slightly more formal terms: coalitions are formed because a parliamentary government can only survive with "confidence and supply", and that doesn't apply to Congress. James Bryce noted the distinction a century ago:
A division in Congress has not the importance it has in the House of Commons. There it may throw out the ministry. In Congress it never does more than affirm or negative some particular bill or resolution. Even a division in the Senate which involves the rejection of a treaty or of an appointment to some great office, does not disturb the tenure of the executive. Hence it is not essential to the majority that its full strength should be always at hand, nor has a minority party any great prize set before it as the result of a successful vote.
Bryce's long discussion on the party system, written from an outsider's perspective, is also worth a read.
posted by holgate at 12:34 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Bryce's long discussion ...

Wow, that looks interesting ... and seems to be extremely 'readable' to boot, despite its age. It almost [but not quite] makes me wish that I were a commuter, so I would have time to read it all!
posted by woodblock100 at 1:26 AM on October 4, 2010

Every couple of years there's speculation that perhaps a few of the more centrist Senators will ally as a sort of "moderate bloc." It's more practical in the Senate than the House because the senators tend to be more established political figures in their own right, have their own campaign accounts that are less dependent on party committees, and only face election every six years instead of every two.

This shouldn't become a political chatfilter, but this year is as good as any in terms of the chances of a moderate party arising. There are several serious candidates running without party affiliation for the Senate (Alaska, Florida), and the existing moderates in the Republican Party are endangered (see that three have lost their seats in the last year and a half). So you never know.

Technically, there are two independents in the Senate who are in "coalition" with the Democrats--one, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is to the left, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is to the right.
posted by j1950 at 3:29 AM on October 4, 2010

As an aside, to say England has a coalition government is like saying Cornwall has a coalition government. There is no English parliament. It's correct to say that the UK has a coalition government.
posted by salmacis at 3:43 AM on October 4, 2010

Response by poster: England ...

Yes, an elementary mistake ... my apologies. (It's not as if I wasn't born there, too!)
posted by woodblock100 at 4:00 AM on October 4, 2010

In parliamentary systems, coalition governments can divide up the ministries. That's a big part of the negotiations that take place when coalitions get set up: which party gets control of which ministry.

You can't do that so much in the US because the cabinet positions are part of the executive branch. The coalition parties in congress could divide up committee chairs, but those positions are much less powerful than cabinet secretaries.
posted by alms at 5:28 AM on October 4, 2010

I'm going to advance the radical hypothesis that the US has been run this way for a long time. Ideologically, American political parties are far looser (and far less disciplined) than all but their UK counterparts. You can have a Raul Gialjava (sp) and a Heath Schuler in the same party. In Continental Europe, these persons would certainly be in two separate parties.

Having said that, of course coalitions would work and have in the past. Since the US legislature sprang from nothingness, it originally had no parties, but coalesced into the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (todays Dems).

The politics of the period 1800-1861 are filled with splinters, factions and parties, all of whom were able to gain representation in government.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:14 AM on October 4, 2010

To a limited extent, it's possible. As holgate notes, for much of the twentieth century and especially from the New Deal until around 1974 the House was effectively run by a coalition of northern Democrats and southern Democrats who shared relatively few interests in common... on some issues. On other issues, the House was effectively governed by a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. It wouldn't be hard to formalize a coalition arrangement; the most obvious thing to do would be to exchange control of various committees instead of ministries.

...and that's the big limit on what coalitions might mean in the US. The executive is separately elected. not formed from the legislature. So while you could have coalitions in House governance, having the US have a coalition government would be trickier. You could still find a way if you really wanted to; the French did, more or less. But it would be trickier and it would inevitably mean less than it does in a parliamentary democracy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:27 AM on October 4, 2010

Just to condense the points made by others into a blurb:

In non-parliamentary governments, party politics, while important, are not nearly as big of a deal as they are in parliamentary governments, despite the unbelievable partisan rancor you see in US political discourse.
posted by valkyryn at 7:55 AM on October 4, 2010

The structure of the US electoral system strongly discourages third parties though single member districts, where the person with the most votes wins. Because the winner takes all, the best strategy is to organize into two competing factions, and those factions have historically been two competing political parties. Something called Duverger's Law says that, given enough time, winner-take-all voting systems will generally lead to a two party system (note that the UK uses single member districts and is usually effectively a two party system but as you point out is currently run by a coalition).
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 10:26 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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