BY AGAR ADAMSON
The United States is a political conundrum.
It is the world’s second largest democracy after India and the oldest contemporary federation. Not only does it have more elections per capita than any other existing nation, it is the world’s best example of popular democracy. No other nation has such a vast arsenal of direct democracy as illustrated by the initiative, the referendum and the recall.
Yet, it has one of the worst records of voter participation at election time.
As one surveys the American political scene a month before the November 2 elections, one wonders if 2010 will be different?
This is an “off year” election: the presidency is not at stake. But, every seat in the House of Representatives and one-third of the senate is up for election. Add to this the number of state contests, including a number of important governorships - including California, Texas and New York; state legislatures and municipal contests. As well as all of that, a number of states, including California, have numerous “ballot questions.”
Historically, the party which holds the presidency does not do well in off-year elections. President Bill Clinton, in hislast six years, faced a congress controlled by his opponents. It appears President Barack Obama will face the same.
As in Canada, both houses must approve legislation, but, unlike Canada, where the senate seldom rejects legislation approved by the House of Commons; this is not the case in the United States. The American senate, with its 100 members, is the world’s most powerful elected body.
The American constitution, now one of the world’s oldest, is built on a system of checks and balances. Congress legislates; the president administers and runs government. The president proposes legislation, including the budget; congress adopts legislation, including the budget. The president nominates candidates for the Supreme Court; the senate approves or rejects the nominees. Legislation adopted by congress must be signed by the president to become law. The president can veto legislation adopted by congress, which can only be over ridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses. In actual fact, thanks to today’s political culture, the power of the presidency has increased, and continues to increase, but there have been no formal changes in the U.S. Constitution to reflect this.
The greatest power any president has is the “bully pulpit.” The president can go directly to the people to gain support for his programs.
The system for electing the president dictates the shape of the American political party system: the two parties are often referred to as “broad tents,” an accurate description and the reason one finds such a wide cross-section of individuals in each party. The rise of the so-called Tea Party within the Republican Party is a good example.
The American parties do not have leaders, as we do in Canada. The president is nominally the leader of his party though, as President Jimmy Carter discovered, this is not always the case. The other party has leaders in each house, but not a national leader.
The American system is in trouble, dominated by “money.” Not only is there no national election statute in the U.S. to compare to the Canada Elections Act, there is very little control on election expenses. Those with the ability to raise funds dominate. An attempt to put reasonable limits on expenses was rejected by the Supreme Court.
Incumbency is important, one reason why we see senators who have six-year terms in office often serving for 24 - or more -years. At one time, there were more electoral changes in the Soviet Union’s parliament than in American off-year elections. It is also the reason, at state level, there has been a ground swell to adopt term-limits: Arnold Schwarzenegger has been “terminated” in California this year.
Voters in Oregon and California will also be voting on the legalization of marijuana. Proposition 21 in California seeks voters’ approval for an $18 surcharge on vehicle licenses to help fund state parks and wildlife services. Perhaps the most important California proposition is number 25, amending the constitution so the budget would require a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds now required. Several states have budgetary issues on their ballots, particularly the borrowing of money for state projects. Unlike Canada, American states cannot run a deficit.
The use of direct democracy by many states is an illustration of the openness of American democracy. British Columbia has adopted certain aspects of U.S. direct democracy, including the ability of the electorate to seek a vote on questions of government policy and the recall of elected members.
The outcome of these off year elections raises a number questions. If the Republicans gain control of one or both houses of congress, how will President Obama react? Will he, like Clinton, be able “to go with the flow?” Or, will he flounder, which could lead to governmental paralysis? Will the Tea Party movement lead to greater voter participation - or not? Will the spin-doctors produce more negative commercials, or will the public say, enough?
For us in Canada, this will be an interesting spectacle, but the outcome will also impact upon us. If there is gridlock in Washington, how will it affect Canada? The Republicans are a more inward-looking party than the Democrats, and we know from previous Republican-lead congresses, they are not very sympathetic to Canadian concerns: look at soft wood lumber. In the past, dirty tricks developed in U.S. campaigns soon find their way north. Finally, there is the question of turnout.
There is never a dull moment when it comes to American politics!