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It is Time for Americans to Consider a Grand Coalition

The surprise resignation of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner comes as approval ratings for the U.S. Congress are at historic lows and Washington outsiders are attracting the most public excitement as presidential candidates writes Glenn Nye. The failure to reach compromise on a spending bill also threatens another damaging government shutdown.

Boehner’s successor will inherit a broken political system, made dysfunctional by the efforts of the two major political parties to win majorities at all costs. Over time, they have redrawn Congressional districts to maximize the partisan take. This process, known as gerrymandering, all but guarantees the election of a member of one particular party in a majority of districts, thereby empowering the extreme voters who constitute the parties’ political bases. Candidates are forced to make increasingly simplistic and unrealistic arguments to a small but active segment of the voting public that is less and less representative of the average citizen. The prospect of a rigged outcome turns off moderate voters, which further exacerbates the problem. It is no surprise that citizens are losing hope that Washington can accomplish even the simplest task of keeping the government open.

Some Americans envy the advantages of a parliamentary system, where the winning party is often able to form a majority government and successfully implement much of its governing platform. U.S. political campaigns often feed a parliamentary dream of quick and dramatic change to voters, before running into the harsh reality that rapid and resolute change is deliberately prevented by a system requiring a combination of a majority in the House of Representatives, a three-fifths majority in the Senate, and a presidential signature. The modern House of Representatives exhibits the key downside of a multiparty system, where a minority of radical members has enough power to bring down the speaker and force a government shutdown, especially if their party leader dares to work with the other party to pass compromise legislation. The competition for Boehner’s successor is underway, but there is little hope that the basic elements causing the speaker’s political demise will change to avoid another damaging government shutdown.

While there are few reasons for optimism that things will improve with the election of a new House Speaker, there is a better option. The United States should take a page from the European playbook: it is time for Americans give a grand coalition a shot. Many European countries have a history of forming grand coalitions of the two main rival parties, often to navigate a period of national urgency. It is a useful tool to overcome specific times of challenge, and the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives allow for such an arrangement.

Installing a new speaker only requires a majority of 218 votes from members of either or both parties, and the speaker is not required to be a sitting member. It is conceivable that centrist Democratic and Republican members could bring together enough votes across the center to reach 218 and elect a respected non-partisan speaker. That speaker, as long as the 218-vote block held, could shepherd legislation through the House. Ideally, this grand coalition would last long enough to deliver two items: a bill funding the government through the end of 2016, and a compromise bill to substantially reduce the national debt over the next decade. After passing these two vital bills, the coalition could disband, leaving the House infighting to go on as before, but having pulled the country out of imminent danger of shooting itself in the foot again by shutting down the government or ruining its long-term finances.

Of course, real legislative success would require passage in the Senate and presidential signature. Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, aware of the challenges facing his more moderate members during reelection next year, would allow the bills to come to a vote. The president would add major achievements to his legacy by signing them. More importantly, perhaps the prospect of real productive compromise in Washington would spur a groundswell of support from everyday Americans and powerful donors, tired of the damaging dysfunction in Washington. This could drive votes and campaign contributions to the members who voted in favor of these two bills. It might even change the tenor of the presidential debates. This plan does require some imagination and a great deal of statesmanlike behavior, but it is nevertheless possible.

Short of doing away with gerrymandered Congressional districts that force most members of the House to cater to an increasingly smaller and radical subset of citizens, innovative short-term alternatives to tackle the basics of governance must be considered. It is high time the United States looked to its European friends for an example of how to unite opposing parties to do the right thing for the country, if only for a short while.

Glenn Nye (D-VA) is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow with The German Marshall Fund and a former Member of the US House of Representatives. 

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