There are many reasons for the gridlock in Washington. Some are recent developments, as the U.S. becomes more politically polarized. Others are structural, built into the American political system.
Regardless, the extreme paralysis that has recently become the norm in D.C. almost never happens in Western European democracies.
“You’re asking: Do other democracies have this problem? And the answer is: Not many,” says Jane Mansbridge, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Mansbridge just finished her term as president of the American Political Science Association. While in that position, she appointed a task force to spend the past year studying how agreements are negotiated in American politics. The group looked at why there’s so much stalemate in the U.S. right now.
One question they asked was whether this country can learn lessons from European democracies where there’s less paralysis.
“We tried to think about why it is that other countries have had less difficulty in negotiating agreements,” says Boston University’s Cathie Jo Martin, who was co-chairwoman of the task force. “You don’t see these kinds of stalemates happening elsewhere.”
One reason for the U.S. tendency toward gridlock is that this country has what Mansbridge describes as “a very strong separation of powers.”
The separation of powers is essential to the American political system. The president needs Congress to pass bills; Congress needs the president to sign bills into law; the courts can declare laws unconstitutional.
In most of Europe, things work differently, says Thomas Risse of the Free University in Berlin.
“In most European parliamentary democracies, the prime ministers or the chancellors are not directly elected by the people,” Risse says, “but they’re elected by the parliament itself, as a result of which they usually have a stable majority.”
It would be as if the American president’s party always controlled Congress.
Of course, America will never become a parliamentary system. But even setting that aside, political scientists say there are other lessons the U.S. can take from Europe.
Martin has concluded that money shapes the American political system in powerful and unique ways.
“I think the campaign finance issue is probably the single most important difference between America and the rest of the world,” she says.
When asked how many other countries with highly functioning democracies have lax donation rules, she replies, “I can’t think of any … almost all countries control finance.”
Today in the U.S., if lawmakers don’t toe the line, outside groups can threaten to bankroll challengers. President Obama expressed concern about that phenomenon at his most recent White House news conference, while acknowledging that he’s not entirely innocent either.
“You have some ideological extremist who has a big bankroll, and they can entirely skew our politics,” Obama said.
The political scientists on this project found other ways that European democracies avoid gridlock, too. For example, Mansbridge says Europeans more often hold key meetings in private.
“When you’ve made a decision, like the Supreme Court, you explain it, but you don’t necessarily let the public see everything you do,” Mansbridge says.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin seemed to take that lesson to heart Thursday, when reporters tried to question him after a White House meeting.
“Can you be more specific about [Obama's] concerns?” a reporter asked.
“I’d rather not, because we’re negotiating right now. No offense, we’re not going to negotiate through the media. We’re going to negotiate straight with the White House,” Ryan said.
While many political scientists agree on changes that could help lessen the chances of gridlock in the U.S., they also agree on the likelihood that these changes will happen:
“I have to admit to a fair amount of pessimism,” says Martin of Boston University.
“The honest answer is I’m pretty pessimistic,” says Alan Jacobs of the University of British Columbia.
Asked how all of this looks from Europe, Risse in Berlin replies, “Pretty dysfunctional, I have to say.”
At least on this point, the U.S. and Europe see things exactly the same way.