Warning: When ingesting the latest news from Washington, you may experience a surge of a distinctly Canadian emotion known as Cross-Border Smugness Syndrome. It is contagious.
The U.S. government is shut down, again. The legislative process is paralyzed. Hundreds of thousands of employees are furloughed or working without pay; stories abound of critical staff calling in sick so they can look for replacement work – any work – to pay the bills.
Meanwhile, the President is on national TV, ranting about hordes of migrants streaming in from Mexico with drugs in their pockets and murder in their hearts. And he’s merely repeating a script that, in 2016, half of America voted for.
Conclusion: Thank God we live in Canada! Feel free to indulge that sentiment; it’s partly true. But let’s put it in perspective. The U.S. system of government, even its current dysfunctional state, has its virtues. And the Canadian system, for all its strengths, has weak points available to be exploited by a Canadian version of the White House’s current occupant.
President Donald Trump is essentially refusing to accept a funding bill – the equivalent of a budget, or part of one – unless Congress gives him US$5.7-billion for his signature border wall. And Congress, one of whose two bodies, the House of Representatives, is controlled by the Democratic Party, has refused to pass such a bill.
Result: The government of the world’s largest economy does not have the funds to pay many of its employees or perform basic government functions.
A comparable situation in Canada is basically impossible, at either the federal or provincial level. In our parliamentary system, the executive isn’t separate and distinct from the legislature; you can only form a government – become prime minister, name a cabinet, govern – if you have the confidence of the House of Commons. A government that fails to pass a money bill has lost the confidence of the House. A new government will replace it.
So: Score one for the Canadian system.
But the U.S. constitutional structure was designed to work very differently. The power to legislate and govern is divided among the president and two chambers of Congress.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who responded to Mr. Trump’s speech on Tuesday night, is not the equivalent of Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party’s Leader of the Opposition and the head of a government-in-waiting. Instead, she’s the lead member of a distinct branch of government with powers separate from those of the President. Mr. Trump is as much the U.S. head of state as the Queen is in Canada. But head of government? That’s complicated. He’s head of the executive branch but, unlike a Canadian PM, a U.S. president isn’t even part of the body he depends on for legislation and funding.
The U.S. Constitution was designed to make it hard to govern, and especially hard to change the law.
In addition to all legislation having to meet with the approval of two houses and the president, members of the U.S. Congress are capable of a degree of independence unknown in the House of Commons. A prime minister or premier with a majority can get a lot of legislation passed in a relatively short time. In contrast, a U.S. president, even one elected by a large majority of the vote, and even one whose party members control both the House and the Senate, may have trouble getting his bills through without amendment, delay or outright denial.
Depending on the circumstances, the U.S. system can look like insanity or prudence. Seen through the lens of the shutdown, it’s the former. But seen in the light of the entire Trump presidency, it’s also the latter.
Mr. Trump, unlike a Canadian PM at the head of a majority government, has to woo the legislature. He doesn’t have a free hand, subject to the judgment of voters four years hence. That’s why so much of Mr. Trump’s agenda remains incomplete. Congress passed his tax cut, but he was unable to persuade members to gut the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, even when his party controlled both houses. He’s been able to change some immigration practices by executive order, but he’s been unable to secure congressional funding for the wall.
The gears of the American government come with the sand preinstalled. Even now – perhaps especially now – that’s something to be thankful for.