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Commentary: U.S. institutions are primed for deadlock

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The deadlock in Washington, D.C., is the product of numerous factors. There is the irredentist Tea Party faction, Republican leaders fearful for their positions, and a president who has not emerged as a strong leader. One factor not considered at all by the press or the talk show pundits is the role of institutions in promoting gridlock and prohibiting bold action.

That the rules of the game are not neutral is a truism. So are institutional structures. They can abet certain behavior and impede others.

Under the British parliamentary system, gridlock would not appear. The majority party in the House of Commons wins all the votes; and the prime minister and his cabinet are members of parliament. If substantial division challenges the ruling party (or coalition), parliament dissolves and a special election is called. The standoff in Washington over budgets and deficits, spending bills and raising the debt ceiling would not occur. There is no equivalent division of powers in Great Britain.

The United States Constitution represented a series of compromises between large and small states, slave states and free states, and agricultural versus commercial states. The compromises, based on the writings of John Locke, separated power to prevent the tyranny of King George III. The framers feared the tyranny of the majority as well as the tyranny of the few. They labored in the shadow of the French Revolution.

The three branches of the United States government serve as checks on unrestrained power. At the federal level, the president has a four-year term. Senators have six-year terms while members of the House have two-year terms. An entire government cannot be selected in the heat of the moment.

Democrats may control the presidency but not the Congress; and the same party may not control both the House and the Senate, as is the case today. Given this diffusion of power, stalemate becomes likely. Even when the same party controls the presidency and Congress, power is still diffused. The principle that guides members is to be re-elected, and they will take stands that are popular with their constituency and the interests that support their candidacy.

The system does not support party discipline and it often does not occur.

Although there have been governmental shutdowns at other points in our history, this may be the most severe. And the element that has created it is clear.

Recent years has seen the growth of a highly cohesive minority among House Republicans. These members have little use for government per se, want to decrease its taxing and regulatory powers, and support the individual. Their rhetoric is fierce, and they will challenge other Republicans who appear likely to compromise.

That this group exists can be attributed to the way the rules of the political game operate. As a result of redistricting, very few swing districts remain. This Republican minority, the tea partiers, may only fear defeat from someone of their party, and right now from someone ostensibly to their right. The creation of this plethora of safe districts was aided and abetted by wealthy conservatives who also bankrolled a number of tea party candidates.

Today many of these financial moguls might regret their support as the fiscal cliff looms closer and closer. Business leaders have fairly unanimously expressed the potential for a failure to raise the debt ceiling to harm a fragile economy. Regrettably some members of Congress they supported do not share their anxiety.

American institutions are unique among the Western democracies. They make possible gridlock; they do not make it inevitable. But also unique is the degree and depth of conservatism in this country, which includes dislike of government, veneration of business, strong religiosity, and emphasis on the individual rather than the community.

Our institutions have created parameters in which political activity takes place. They help to form and then interact with a compatible belief system. In the past, the middle has taken a stand when a fringe grows too powerful. Is that about to happen again?

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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