Would a Coalition Government be Possible in the United States? by
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Prompted By The Road Not Taken

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I am not a political scientist and, truth be told, am somewhat apolitical.  However, during election season, I sometimes wonder why our political process works the way it does today.  In the past, it has been the California ballot initiative – why does it exist and why is it so annoying?…  This year, with the “GOP Leadership Crises of 2015”, I wonder if a coalition government could exist and if it could be viable.

What happened to the Greens and why doesn't the Tea Party split with the Republican Party? Musings from a non-expert in the matter.

To start, many parliamentary systems of government, including most in the EU, feature rule by coalition.  That is to say, that two or more parties agree to rule together, select their leaders and their ministers, either through some common cause or common political foe.  This is a necessity when no single party can muster a simple majority and must seek backing from another party in order to form a government.

Let’s set aside the downsides of rule by coalition, for which there are many, because that would be too much information for this humble post.

In the US House of Representatives, it is an unwritten rule that the Speaker is elected by a simple majority of all voting congressman (here, I am using the formal “male” title, though I heartily support women, transgendered, and even a stove or cat).  By convention, the majority party votes along non-dissenting party lines for a single candidate from their own party.  Therefore, there is no split vote and no cross-over voting.  That is why the Speaker is always a member of the majority party.

An unwritten rule, however, can be broken.  FDR did it.  Harry Reid did it.  So what if Paul Ryan had decided that he wants to run for president someday?  Only one Speaker ever became president: James Polk.  This article goes farther to postulate why Speakers don’t make good Presidents (though I leave agreement/disagreement up to you).  Or we can really believe that Ryan’s only reason is that he wants to spend time with his family.  But back to the thesis, there are 210 “normal” Republican congressmen and they need 218 to elect a Speaker.  If the House Freedom Caucus behaves unpredictably (or predictably?) then they could challenge the Speaker’s election, forcing a Speaker to be chosen with Democrats’ help.

From here, it can get sticky because (and I Googled this…) committee make up and chairmanships are determined by the “majority party”.  In the scenario with a rebellious sub-group of one party, this could lead to some confusion.  So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is a substantial third-party (such as Greens or Libertarians or the Normal Peoples Party) such that the largest party only hold a plurality of seats.  Stay with me, because at present there are NONE.

So the Speaker is elected, and committee chairmanships must be awarded.  Presumably, the smaller party in the coalition would caucus with the larger and negotiate a percentage of committees.  Here it diverges radically from parliamentary forms of government where the Executive Cabinet is also selected from these negotiations.  In our case, the coalition is contained within the House.

Hypothetically, this is possible because it is not illegal or immoral.  In fact, political parties originate from factionism within George Washington’s cabinet and are not mentioned in the Constitution.  Would this lead to greater collaboration or would it be a formula for gridlock?  Would congressional leadership be more focused on legislation for the good of the people?  Would gerrymandering become an obsolete notion?

We will never answer those questions, however, because actual political scientists have a First Past the Post theory which says that “winner takes all” electoral systems such as ours tend toward being two-party systems with inconsequential third-parties.  Perhaps that explains why the Tea Party never formally broke ranks with the Republican Party to become it’s own entity; if they were to do so, the lack of governance by coalition would effectively marginalize their influence in the full House.  They would have to caucus with the Republicans, but in the House there is no modern precedent for sharing power (it’s interesting to point out that this does happen in the Senate, where Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats).  Therefore, the Tea Party has more leverage by being a vocal branch of the Republican Party and holding their leadership to task for ignoring minority groups such as the House Freedom Caucus.

Anyway, I just wanted to get that off my back.

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Tags: politics, democrat, republican, house, senate, speaker
Characterizations: right on!


  1. John Zussman says:

    Even more relevant now than when you wrote it two years ago! I find it interesting that political scientists believe that our two-party-dominated system stems from our winner-take-all philosophy. But that’s not in the Constitution either, as I argued in my recent post about the Electoral College. I appreciate how you responded to this prompt on a national rather than personal level.

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