Many legislatures around the world have veto points. If a particular party needs to be included in every plausible governing coalition, then that party wields an effective veto over policy. Those situations, however, are rare. They are also contingent on voter preferences. One key election, and the veto player’s influence is gone.
The U.S. Congress possesses multiple veto points. One is the committee chairperson, who possesses almost absolute veto control. Another is the Senate filibuster. Neither of these are particularly new, but it is plausible to argue that two developments have made them far more problematic.
First, U.S. parties are far more parliamentary than they used to be. It is now very difficult to peel away opposition legislators than it used to be, particularly among the Republicans. Second, the Senate filibuster has become routine, creating a de facto 60-vote supermajority. Thus, the emergence of two new veto points: the Senate minority party and swing senators. I wouldn’t bet on swing senators lasting all that long. Moderate Republicans are down to two women from Maine. Moderate Democrats are more common, but I suspect that the Democratic leadership will eventually figure out ways to discipline its members that are at least as strong as the Republicans’.
I suspect, but do not know, that the above development is the half-threat to the American system of government that Carlos thought he might be seeing.
There are multiple ways in which this could cause the Argentinization of the United States. The current employer-based health care system, for example, is collapsing. A failure to reform won’t cause any sort of immediate disaster. But it might (perhaps) cause inequality to increase while saddling those businesses that try to maintain coverage with unsustainable costs. Over the decades, that could become a slow-motion catastrophe. Conversely, American public finance is unsustainable over the long-term. But the definition of “crisis” keeps ratcheting up. You can punt for a long tine, as debt piles up and public services ratchet down, but unless a miracle occurs you eventually run down the public sector and with it, long-term economic growth. In that story, we have seen the future, and it is California. Finally, financial reform already seems to have been quite watered down. You can’t blame Congress for that, and it might not even be a problem … but there are reasons to believe that we’re setting the stage for another October 2008. Not to mention Simon Johnson’s suspicion that the U.S. government has been captured by a financial elite. More veto points, the harder it will be to free the Republic from that capture.
And then there is global warming. There is no world government, which means that there is a coordination problem among the big players. A U.S. incapable of making big decisions probably means that nobody makes the big decisions. I don’t know, maybe the European Union would decide to impose carbon tariffs, or some farsighted Brazilian leader could bring together a coalition of everybody-but-America, but that seems unlikely.
To be honest, I’m not convinced that the combination of the filibuster and parliamentary parties necessarily spells paralysis. Nor does federal paralysis necessarily spell Argentinization: this country has a lot of things going for it that Argentina never did. But the legislative provisions of the U.S. constitution are not functioning well right now. The growing ability of a minority to block Congressional action seems to me to bring a much greater chance of political failure than the presidential veto or judicial review.