When Paul Ryan announced that he was considering running for speaker of the house, he did so with a list of demands. Among them, he wanted more family time and fewer fundraising obligations than previous speakers, the unity of the House Republicans Conference behind him, and a rule change essentially removing the threat of being deposed midway through his term, like his predecessor John Boehner was. While many hailed this as a move of political genius to both gain the speakership and disarm the far-right of his party, Ryan’s actions were actually far more indicative of continual Congressional shifts. He was speeding along the House’s transformation into a representative body run with parliamentary politics—a potentially lethal combination.
The sheer mechanics of the Speaker’s election process help explain why the role has functionally developed into its current iteration. In fact, the election for speaker of the house functions in many ways like the election for prime minister in a parliamentary democracy. Members elected directly by the people elect a speaker of the majority party, just as directly elected members of parliament elect a prime minister. As such, both are indirectly elected by the people. But while a prime minister goes on to form and lead a government, the Speaker of the House has typically been responsible for fundraising, designing basic political strategy to turn his party’s proposals into law, and deciding when to bring legislation up for a vote—duties that amount to far less than leading a government.
Yet in recent years, the growing political polarization of the country and the rigidity of political parties’ ideologies has shifted American politics toward a model traditionally found in parliamentary systems: Parties vote as blocks without meaningful interparty cooperation under a powerful speaker, who guides the majority block to vote monolithically and quickly on party priorities, rather than truly weighing and debating the merits of the choices at hand with the opposition.
But the United States was notably set up not to be a parliamentary democracy run by rigid political parties. Since its founding, the US has based its governance around a system of democratic compromise, rather than the partisan mud fight that its modern politics has lurched into. Yet despite the founders’ desire to engender ideological diversity over partisanship, polarized political parties have developed and only continued to grow, becoming perhaps the single strongest players in contemporary politics. This has remained true in an era where big donors and outside interest groups are otherwise seen as dominating the political landscape. Yet only parties themselves retain the infrastructure, donor base, and long-term strategy to ensure not just their survival, but authority in the American political system.
Concurrently, political polarization in the US has skyrocketed, reaching levels previously not seen since the outbreak of the Civil War. But unlike in the 1860s, when such polarization was primarily driven by the single issue of slavery, today’s polarization carries a much more ominous caveat: It’s not just one issue that both sides disagree on, but the whole platform. The disappearance of moderate members in both parties and the political bifurcation of the country in turn have led to a set of opposing parties with limited ideological overlap—both dead set on the other’s absolute defeat. In short, these factors have led to conditions highly reminiscent of parliamentary politics, but far from ideal for a legislature designed to foster compromise and carefully debate government policy.
This growing partisan divide has only further cemented the trend towards party unity over compromise, elevating the extremist factions that have begun to operate less like equal voices inside of one party and more like small coalition partners that might use the few seats they control to try and become a power broker. It was, after all, an ideological fringe group, the House Freedom Caucus, which scared away Kevin McCarthy from pursuing the House speakership and, in turn, threatened to withhold their crucial 40-vote bloc from any potential speaker unless their conditions were met.
Yet these extremist groups do not represent a lack of ideological consensus, but instead merely a difference in strategy. They are extreme not for their views but for how their views should be implemented, demonstrating that party unity overall—at least on an ideological basis—is still strong. And the election of Ryan without their full backing further demonstrated that, despite their membership numbers, party unity will still ultimately prevail over a faction. But in turn, such unity has shifted the leadership of the House ideologically further and further away from the political center—anchored in the middle of their own party, rather than the middle of the country. Now, Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ effective speaker-in-waiting should they ever regain their majority, both come from the ideological poles of their parties, with Pelosi being a liberal from San Francisco and Ryan making headlines as the most conservative House speaker in history.
The centralized power of leadership is also a troubling nod in the direction of parliamentarianism. When looking at the election of Speaker Ryan himself, it is notable that conservative opposition to his election ceased to be about his ideological credentials and focused on a much more procedural complaint: that perhaps the Speakership was gaining too much power and influence. The job, for many die-hard conservatives, should be about gathering input from all members and creating an open forum for debate. It’s true that Ryan did acknowledge these yearnings, but his insistence on a series of conditions and broad support across the party’s ideological spectrum shifted the advantage away from the hard right. By agreeing to Ryan’s demands, the party has only made the speaker more powerful and further reshaped the House to look more like the British House of Commons than the body it was intended to be. Ryan may have pledged to be a more inclusive speaker who will listen to member concerns, but his demands for party unity and retention of the speakership’s power indicate that he may merely be willing to entertain intraparty debate without actually committing to overall House unity and compromise.
Setting the precedent for Ryan’s campaign, former Speaker Newt Gingrich began to consolidate power, rather than dispersing it through various important members of the leadership and committee chairs. Using tools like term limits on committees and leveraging his position as the public face of the party, Gingrich turned the job into a more powerful role. He even upped party discipline through the highly parliamentarian tactic of “backbenching” to ensure that those committee members who do have power stayed in line. Gingrich’s actions effectively moved power away from congressional committees to the speaker, making that person, in many ways, the exclusive owner of legislative power in one chamber of Congress.
Decades later, Ryan’s call to keep power centralized in his hands will ensure that communication politics and fundraising will most likely remain the speaker’s duties but not his primary role. In his previous capacities as congressman, House Budget Committee chair and vice presidential candidate, Ryan proved himself to be more of a “doer” and a “policy wonk,” rather than a powerless figurehead. Ryan will not merely be a cheerleader, but will instead have the power of a major political party united behind him in lockstep, lest they face discipline and loss of leadership positions. Ryan will not just be a talking head; he will be the leader of the president’s opposition and, should the Republicans win the White House, the president’s new prime minister.
Yet regardless of the strength of Ryan’s policies or his convictions about how the House should be led, his ascension as a parliamentarian leader spells real danger for the system he now presides over. While the House of Representatives, perhaps more than any other part of the American government, resembles a parliament of sorts, it is not the only body that a bill must pass through. Its counterpart, the Senate, is far from the majoritarian and populist body that the House has traditionally been perceived to be, and even with the growing rigidity of parties, it comes nowhere near to the thickening parliamentary dynamic that currently characterizes the House.
What’s more, the US presidential system means that even if a party was to control both the House and a supermajority to prevent filibustering in the Senate, a leader of the opposing party could still veto enough legislation to completely stop up the works and end any chance of progress. For instance, Nancy Pelosi as speaker passed over 300 bills that all stalled once they reached the far more deliberative Senate, an outcome to be expected given its nature as the “tea saucer” of democracy, where ideas may cool. But this is not the way a parliament is supposed to function, and the outcome can be far more disastrous if Congress is divided between the parties, which looks possible ahead of the 2016 elections.
Many may hail the election of Speaker Ryan as a sign of a new era for the Republican Party and the House and a chance for cooperation to finally prevail in government, as it was supposed to. But so far, his election has merely served to crystalize the values of clear party unity and strong leadership that expects members to fall in line rather than try and make deals, as well as the further polarization of House leadership away from the country’s center toward its ideological extremes. It’s a recipe for even worse dysfunction than that which already exists in the US government, with no solution in sight. And neither of those options seem likely in an environment in which even national security funding can be taken for granted.
All this is to say that even if the politics and the leadership of the country are moving in a more parliamentarian direction, the system itself is anchored firmly in the congressional-presidential representative democracy that is designed to encourage cooperation, rather than fighting between the parties. Yet this is no longer the country that the House and Senate exist in. Horse trading has been swapped for strict party discipline, and compromise has ended in favor of gridlock.
The US is not like England, Japan, or Canada in many ways, but especially not in its government. Many Americans are proud of this, and it is not without reason, given that for many decades their governmental system functioned well enough to result in tremendous wealth, power, and influence for the country. But even if the United States isn’t Canada, its politics are beginning to resemble those of its parliamentarian northern neighbor. It’s a possibly toxic cocktail for government, which could prove to be the tipping point for a Congress on the brink every time a stopgap spending measure runs out. We may not have a parliament, but with Ryan as speaker, we may soon have a prime minister.
Art by Emily Reif