why can’t a centrist coalition form in the US House?

(Sacramento) If the legislature of almost any other democracy faced our current crisis, there would be talk of forming a new government.

John Boehner presides over a coalition composed of the center-right plus the Tea Party. Since those two groups are at odds, the obvious choice in almost any other system would be to build a different majority in the House. For instance, Boehner could propose a status-quo budget until the 2014 elections and promise to allow votes on all other topics with simple majority support. That proposal would probably gain the backing of 70% of the House. (It would exclude the Tea Party–who would turn their attention to the next election–and the House Progressive Caucus, whose members would balk on the ground that the budgetary status quo is unacceptable.) Boehner could even offer Nancy Pelosi the number-two position in the House. He would thus become the leader of a new majority coalition that would easily pass a budget.

Why isn’t this an option in the US? The constitution is no impediment. In fact, as Sandy Levinson notes, the House can even name a distinguished non-Congressperson to serve as Speaker. That is an example of the freedom to innovate that we tend to forget because we regard our traditions as inviolable.

If the constitution does not prevent a parliamentary solution to our current crisis, I think these are the main obstacles:

First, single-member, winner-take-all districts yield a two-party system. If there are just two parties, then (barring a perfect tie) one of them must have an outright majority in the House. Members of the majority party benefit from that status and are always highly reluctant to split. In Italy, India, or Israel, legislators come from many parties that sometimes split and recombine; leaving the governing coalition can be an appealing choice.

Second, the Speaker controls the floor. I don’t know much about discharge petitions and the like, but I don’t think that a proposal for new leadership could come up for a vote without the rules changing first. This means that although Boehner could—hypothetically—abandon the Tea Party and build a new centrist majority, no one else is really in a position to do that. Since Boehner doesn’t have to worry about the threat of a new majority being formed by a rival (say, by Nancy Pelosi), he can concentrate on potential revolts within his own party instead.

Finally, sheer tradition stands in the way. Because new coalitions never form in our Congress, the Tea Party would regard Republicans who suddenly joined a bipartisan governing majority as traitors on the order of Benedict Arnold himself. Their shock and horror would be immense. In contrast, parliamentary systems see frequent realignments. If you get dropped from a majority coalition, it’s just politics as usual.

John Boehner could form a centrist coalition in the US House and resolve the current budgetary crisis. That’s not illegal or unthinkable, but I think the odds are about one in a thousand. It’s also about one in a thousand that some moderate Republicans will decide to caucus with the Democrats and bring down his speakership. Far more likely is a continued struggle between the two existing party blocs in the House. Although our system has certain advantages, it is far more brittle than the alternatives, and we are paying the price right now.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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