Two cheers for Westminster (or why President Obama won’t be able to change much at all)

By skepticlawyer

A German Carnival Parade floatBarack Obama has campaigned thus far on a strong platform of ‘change’. On one level, he’s been very unspecific; on another he has deliberately sought to be less partisan in his message, trying to include more people in his vision. His most pointed and intelligent criticisms of current political practice focus on the partisan divide within the various arms of the US government, so much so that each arm is often involved in a deliberate obstruction game vis a vis the others. He is particularly hard on lobbyists, who seem to have a special talent for finding their way into almost all Administrations:

When I’m President of the United States, corporate lobbyists or anyone who has lobbied for a foreign government will not be permitted to work in my White House. And this is a continuation of my belief that we need to reduce the influence of special interests and lobbyists, which I’ve believed the entire time I’ve been in public life.

Whether – if elected – he will be able to overcome the institutional (and highly partisan) inertia embedded in US government structures is another thing altogether. In some ways, I suspect Obama wants to bring a Westminster sensibility to the Madisonian project. If he succeeds – even during the course of an election campaign, never mind if elected – in persuading at least some Americans that their relentlessly separated regime actually inhibits good governance, then he will have performed a major community service.

The American system is so partisan in part because its founding fathers took the separation of powers so seriously, and the characteristics of a highly separated system have percolated through the entire regime, undermining effective governance. This is a pity, as – in the right doses – the separation of powers enhances governmental efficiency, both in the economic and popular senses of the word.

The traditional rationale for the separation of powers is that it inhibits the excessive accumulation of power in too few hands, and thus enhances liberty. All fully functional democracies display elements of the ‘three arms’ of government as originally conceived by Montesquieu – the legislative, executive and judiciary. In the US, this separation goes ‘all the way down’, in that the bureaucracies underpinning the legislative and executive are strongly politicised. I think it’s fair to say that the ongoing competition between House, Senate and Presidency for control over the administrative (and lawmaking) apparatus has contributed to this excessively politicised style of bureaucratic government, even to the point of transforming the executive branch into an enemy of the rule of law.

The President’s role as the most powerful politician in the land has placed him in this position in part due to the massive expansion of governmental bureaucracy since 1787. At this point, some cliometrics are in order, courtesy James Sterling Young’s The Washington Community: in 1802, the number of nonmilitary officials working for the federal government was precisely 2,597. In 1997, it was 1,872,800. This is particularly worth noting when one remembers that the SCOTUS increasingly resolves questions of power in favour of the executive like this:

1. The president is vested with executive power
2. The Constitution divides federal power into 3 branches (legislative, executive and judicial)
3. Power over the bureaucracy is neither legislative nor judicial
4. Therefore, this power must vest in the executive.

In the UK, by contrast, the bureaucracy is professionally neutral — one of the major British constitutional conventions — and the victors in a general election are awarded plenary law-making power. This process takes only a single election, and concentrates law-making power in the Cabinet. In a functioning parliamentary system, the PM and Cabinet have their eyes firmly focussed on the next election, which means they want knowledgeable and effective implementation from the bureaucracy, and quickly. Practical effects derived from policy need to show, and while this may look like simple short-termism, it is in many respects a guarantee that an elected majority will do something rather than nothing, and that electors will be able to determine whether that something is to their taste or not before the next election.

Watchers of Yes, Minister may think I am being unduly optimistic, and may also have visions of naive politicians being outmanoeuvred by a bunch of Oxbridge educated mandarins, but the system only really falls down when there are too many of the latter. Professional bureaucrats do have different time-horizons from elected representatives, and in some respects the obstruction this generates may be useful. This is a point classical liberals often make in their arguments against ‘we need to do something, this is something, let’s do it, then’ styles of government. Taken too far, however, obstructionism can become a perverse end in itself, something that has become characteristic of governance in the US.

Why is Obama’s optimistic view that it is possible to be neutrally competent in the administration of government so naive in an American context? Why doesn’t the US simply begin to recruit its mandarins along British lines, so they are forced to serve governments of all political stripes, rather than only those with whom they are ideologically aligned? The US Federal Reserve is in many respects isolated from partisan politics – why not health or education?

The answer lies not only in the radical separation of powers characteristic of the US, but in the way those powers are doled out over the course of several election cycles. As I mentioned above, a single election will grant a given British political grouping plenary power. This is not so in the US: election victory in a single arm – President, House or Senate – guarantees almost nothing. By contrast with the rapid accession to ‘full authority’ in Britain, the American system of fixed and staggered two-, four-, and six-year terms for House, President and Senate is much more exigent, requiring many more elections before a rising political movement is in solid control of full law-making power. It demands a political movement to keep winning elections for ten years or more before it can assume full control over key institutions, and that ‘full authority’ may only come once in a generation.

This has various consequences. First is the problem of impasse, when House and President are dominated by different parties. This only sometimes produces functional accommodation. In the Latin American and Asian nations that have copied the US presidential system wholesale (think of the Philippines, for example), there is often constitutional breakdown. In an effort to destroy its competitor, one or another power assaults the constitutional system and installs itself as sole lawmaker. Even in the US, a serious problem of frustration emerges time and again when one arm’s initiatives are blocked by the others.

Of course, as soon as full authority emerges out of an election cycle, there is a race against the constitutional clock – in the US, there’s only 2 years to play – often with predictable ‘rush through’ results. Laws are designed to withstand future electoral adversity, and are thus not able to demonstrate any real-world results on which voters may form views in the limited time available. They are commonly strong on symbol and short on substance, for the simple reason that because the electorate can’t see concrete results before they vote, the government may as well give them something they can see – large symbolic statements. President Bush’s ‘Faith-Based Initiatives’ are emblematic of the type.

I’m not pretending that Westminster is perfect (which is why there are only two cheers at the top of this post, not three). Short-termism produces problems all its own, especially in countries – like Australia – with very short election cycles. That said, Obama’s desire to rise above partisan politics may well prove fruitless for the simple reason that there are too many entrenched interests buried deep in the system. In any case, I wish him luck, because the basic idea is a good one.

[The graphic was taken at a German Carnival parade. I don’t know which one, unfortunately, and nor does my correspondent].


  1. Posted June 6, 2008 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    One possible reason for greater hope than you portray here is that if Obama wins (and I think he has to be the favourite at present), then (a) there’s a pretty good chance the Democrats will also have solid majorities in both the Senate and the Reps, and (b) that change is not only a key part of Obama’s message but also of what generates the enthusiasm he is getting. It’s not just a message he’s plucked out of a focus group for electoral convenience, it is clearly what he believes in. If he wins well, he will have a lot of authority to make some significant changes. Without underestimating the enormity of the task, If he moves quickly before he loses too much of his political capital on other things, he could achieve a fair bit.

  2. Posted June 6, 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    You may want to check the spelling of public – and then delete this comment.

  3. Posted June 6, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Not at all, Andrew – at least the mistake was on Obama’s website, and not something I introduced to the document 😉

One Trackback

  1. […] Bush and his ‘faith-based-initiatives’ with interest. In the end, partly thanks to characteristics internal to US governance and partly thanks to the refusal of markets to play the game, Bush couldn’t even put a dent […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *