President Barack Obama comes to town today. Perhaps he’ll snack on some Gates while scanning the chatter about his recent problems — Syria, failed gun legislation, bad speeches.
The complaints may or may not be accurate. They do, though, reflect an old theme in American politics, the Second Term Slump.
Eight years ago, George W. Bush’s second-term plan to privatize Social Security was already nearing collapse. In 1985, second-termer Ronald Reagan was preparing to sell arms for hostages. In 1997, Bill Clinton was — well, you know.
So second-term malaise is nothing new. In this case, though, the focus on White House struggles may obscure a more important political trend, which is the change in how Congress works.
Five years ago, facing a second-term economic meltdown, Bush proposed a $700 billion bank bailout called the Troubled Asset Relief Program. At the time, there were 17 members of Congress from Kansas and Missouri.
When the vote came, eight of those members — three Republicans and five Democrats — voted for TARP. Seven area Republicans voted no, as did two Democrats.
The wisdom of those decisions is a topic for another day. But note how bipartisan the votes were: Members of both parties crossed over on an issue of immense national importance.
In the next two weeks, Congress will debate a higher debt limit and a spending bill, both crucial pieces of law.
To date, finding a bipartisan middle on spending and debt measures has been all but impossible. And absent a change, a government shutdown or debt default may be impossible to avoid.
Slowly but clearly, Congress is becoming a parliamentary body, in which party affiliation, not bipartisan consensus, is the only factor in legislative decisions.
A full parliamentary system might actually be a good thing. Gridlock would disappear: The majority party elects the head of government and rules, and the minority watches.
We’re not seeing that, though. Instead, we’re stumbling toward apartial
parliamentary government, because the people elect the chief executive, not the ruling party. So we’re getting the strict party-line votes of a parliamentary legislative system without the benefit of an accountable executive branch.
Winner-take-all parliamentary politics can also cause big swings in public policy, from conservative to liberal and back again. It’s common in Europe, where parliamentary systems dominate.
Sound familiar? Maybe politicians worried about the United States becoming as dysfunctional as Greece are closer to the truth than they know.
So skip the ribs, Mr. President. Grab some of Kansas City’s world famoussouvlaki instead.