Gridlock in Washington is no accident. It's built into the Constitution.
Nations still marvel at the United States, but today, it's our gridlock that draws the world's wonder.
It shouldn't. The current impasse between the Republican House and the Democratic president and Senate has only highlighted what is a chronic -- indeed, constitutional -- condition: Just as the American people have a bias for action, the American government has a bias for stasis. Governmental gridlock is as American as apple pie.
Those who defend our system concede -- indeed, exult -- that it places roadblocks in the path of major policy shifts. When the nation faces a genuine crisis, they argue, our government invariably rises to the occasion, as it did in Roosevelt's time. Unfortunately, that's a selective reading of our history. One hundred and fifty years ago, our government was not up to the task of holding the union together. Today, as the Great Recession grinds on, the different branches of government cannot agree on a course of action.
The root cause of all this inactivity is our peculiar form of democracy. While most democracies are governed by parliamentary systems, our Founders opted for a presidential system, which they consciously booby-trapped with multiple veto points to impede decisive legislative action and sweeping social change.
In America, for instance, presidents take office, but they don't form a government, as prime ministers do in virtually every other democracy. Presidents can form no more than an executive branch. They appoint cabinet members, sub-cabinet officials, military commanders, ambassadors, and the heads of regulatory agencies. They don't appoint congressional leaders; often as not, their party may not control either or both houses of Congress. Indeed, the White House, the Senate, and the House have been controlled by the same party during just 8 of the past 30 years. Even when the same party holds Congress and the presidency, the system still fragments power.
Presidents and congresses are elected not merely independently but at different times and by different electorates. After a midterm election in the United States, no members of the House and only one-third of the senators hold their seats by virtue of having won them in the same election that brought the president to power. The president and the Congress each have separate but equal claims to power and legitimacy. Thus a government divided between a president of one party and a Congress of another can reach an impasse for which "there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved."
That's why nations with presidential systems, not parliamentary ones, have been more prone to military takeovers, which occur most frequently when civilian governments have reached just such an impasse. The United States is the sole presidential-system nation to have avoided this.