In honor of Independence Day in the United States, we asked some of our influential American history and politics VSI authors to ask each other some pointed questions related to significant matters in America. Their passionate responses have inspired a four day series leading up to America’s 237th birthday. Today L. Sandy Maisel, author of American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction shares his answers. Check back tomorrow for part two.
Richard M. Valelly (American Politics VSI) asked: Political scientists used to worry that American parties were not “responsible parties,” that is, internally cohesive and responsive to their electoral bases. Now that we have political parties that are responsible, political scientists have become worried about an excess of partisanship and the dangers of partisan rancor. From your point of view, what would be the ideal kind of national party system?
L. Sandy Maisel: Given our system of government, with separation of powers and checks and balances, I think a two-party system, with at least semi-responsible parties, is preferable. Indeed, I think it is also inevitable. The problem comes when each party is dominated by an extreme group and when compromise becomes a “dirty word.” Governance in a system like ours requires negotiation and compromise, finding proximate solutions to intractable problems. That does not mean that parties are without principle; rather it implies that most of the day-to-day issues of government do not involve those basic principles.
Charles O. Jones (The American Presidency VSI) asked: Conventional wisdom has it the out-party does not have either a single leader, or even, nationally, a means to integrate policy proposals. Yet today the Republican Party is challenged to have an “agenda” akin to a national platform. Is this a change or merely a media illusion?
L. Sandy Maisel: I believe it is a media illusion. The Republican Party today, at least before recent efforts to find bipartisan solutions on gun control and immigration policy, seems intent on opposing whatever President Obama proposes. Opposition to any legislation is not a winning strategy electorally and it is not how our government works best. However, working with the party in power does not mean giving up on one’s own ideas. Republicans can do both, without the need to have a competing agenda or to be totally negative.
Charles O. Jones: What has been the effect on the congressional committees of having outside “gangs” and/or public agenda campaigns by presidents? Immigration being the most recent case, Social Security for Bush 43 (but there are many such).
L. Sandy Maisel: This question is a fascinating one, one that is broader in its implications than it is possible to address in a brief answer. Congressional committees have been hamstrung in their ability to handle broad over-arching issues for some time. Think about energy policy under President Carter, one of his few legislative initiatives. Today’s highly partisan Congress, with Republican committee positions determined at least in part by Members’ commitment to specific views on the issues under the committees’ jurisdictions, means that in those areas committees cannot legislate as they once did. As a result, key legislation is often handled by “gangs,” or nothing will get done.
Donald A. Ritchie (The US Congress VSI) asked: The US Congress has been called a “broken branch.” If that’s so, whose fault is it: the institution, the political parties, or the voters?
L. Sandy Maisel: Congress has been called the “broken branch” for many years. I believe Ralph Nader used that characterization nearly half a century ago. But the public’s evaluation of Congress is now at an all-time low, so the “broken branch” metaphor may be more apt than ever. The fault, in my view, lies with the electoral system and the Congressmen and Senators that system produces.
Redistricting of House districts has created a system in which the vast majority of seats are safe for one party or the other; as a result any competition that exists is within the majority party in the district and nominees tend to come from party extremes. That has led to a House in which compromise is very hard to reach. The public sees an institution incapable of addressing, much less solving, pressing problems.
The Senate is hampered by its own rules, particularly the filibuster rule and the necessity of gaining a super majority to pass any important bills or to vote on many confirmations (action further restrained by “holds” on nominations placed by individual Senators). The result is similar: a legislative body incapable of action and held in low regard by the public because of its inaction.
In other eras strong House and Senate leaders have brought the Congress back from periods in which the institution was held in low regard, but none of today’s leaders seem capable of taking the long-term institutional view rather than seeking short-term political gain.
L. Sandy Maisel is the Chair of the Department of Government at Colby College. A former candidate for Congress, Maisel wrote American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction, is the author or editor of 15 books on political parties and elections, and is a frequent commentator on contemporary politics.
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