From Carlos Yu, the five failure modes are:
- There might be too many “veto points” in the Federal system to resolve new problems of government in a timely manner (discussed here, here, here, here, and here);
- The military might not accept civilian authority;
- The monetary and regulatory agencies might be too slow or too unwieldy to deal with unexpected changes in the global economic system (this failure mode actually occured in 1929-32, to catastrophic result);
- The U.S. population might become apathetic and gullible to the point of civic dysfunction;
- Enough states go dingo that the Federal system can’t deal.
Is there a sixth? Perhaps: the party system becomes dysfunctional.
In the U.S. House, the majority party has total control. It can effectively ignore the minority. With enough internal discipline, therefore, it takes only a majority of the majority to run the place.
Nothing strange in that: most parliamentary democracies run that way, certainly under the Westminster system.
But in the U.S., you have two additional wrinkles. First, gerrymandering means that the GOP controls the House despite losing the Congressional elections by 1.4 million votes, a margin of 1.1%. This result was driven by some ridiculous maps in a few states: in Pennsylvania the GOP got 72% of the seats with 49% of the two-party vote; in North Carolina they got 69% of the seats also with 49% of the two-party vote.
Nonetheless, this is still not a failure mode. It is just tough politics.
The second problem is worse, though. How does the GOP maintain a parliamentary level of unity? It is not because of strong centralized leadership! No, it is because the primary elections attract very small turnout, which on the Republican side (but oddly-enough, not the Democratic, for reasons I do not understand) tend to be very highly ideologically motivated. Thus, you get discipline for fear of getting primaried by someone to your right.
Still not a problem ... except those even-more-right-wing candidates do not face a competitive electoral environment at the House level. At the Senate level they do: thus the spate of statewide Tea Party losses in 2010. (Or on the other side, Joe Lieberman’s primary loss in 2006, where he came back to beat the new Democratic nominee in the general.)
So you get a small, increasingly safe, radical wing with an effective veto over the House of Representatives. End result? Government shutdown, as that wing demands the rather unprecedented strategy of holding hostages in order to get through its legislative priorities. Or worse yet, a default caused by hitting the debt ceiling.
Solutions? Well, there are a few as far as the government shutdown is concerned. GOP moderates (like Charlie Dent or Peter King) could cut a deal with Democrats to keep Boehner as Speaker even after he allowed the government to reopen or abolished the debt ceiling. Or they could bolt to sign a discharge petition to bring a continuing resolution or debt ceiling bill to the floor. Boehner could decide that he is a useful lightning rod for conservative ire. Or nothing happens for a couple of weeks and the GOP winds up in trouble in 2014. (The last link is very good, I think, at explaining the GOP strategy.)
But the debt ceiling is not like that. Mess that up, and you have catastrophe.
The President will soon have two illegal choices. He can run with random defaults on bondholders and other creditors. (After all, I work for you for two weeks and then get a paycheck, well, to all extents and purposes I am your creditor.) Or he can say screw the debt ceiling law, organize a Treasury auction, and procede apace.
His third choice is to cave to GOP demands, of course, while somehow forcing the Senate to go along. But that is a failure mode: it would effectively repeal Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution because of a stupid law held over from the First World War.
Since both are illegal, he may well go with the second option. It will lead him to be impeached, but the Senate will ignore it.
And by forcing the President to choose between two illegal options, it will further transfer power to the executive branch. Carlos Yu: “While Obama will probably be circumspect about how much, it’s another precedent.”
Anyway, I think we will make it through this madness unscathed. Presumably the House will assert itself against the radical part of the GOP caucus. Hopefully the GOP will then pay a price in 2014, despite gerrymandering. Possibly we will reform the primary system to make things saner.
Or perhaps we will not. The party system will remain dysfunctional. Either the President will gain another power or we will continue to have government by confrontation until the GOP loses the House. Enough such precedents, and you have a failure mode.No?
POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I came across this piece by Stan Collender. It very cogently lays out the problem with the House GOP. Worth reading.