Why Are There No Coalition Governments in the United States?: A Speculative Essay

By Tushnet, Mark | Boston University Law Review, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Why Are There No Coalition Governments in the United States?: A Speculative Essay


Tushnet, Mark, Boston University Law Review


As the government approached a shutdown in 2013, one thing appeared clear: a majority of members of the House of Representatives were opposed to what seemed inevitable.1 All the congressional Democrats and about twenty congressional Republicans seemed ready to adopt a budget that would have kept the government open.2 Even more, House Speaker John Boehner appeared to be among those willing to adopt a budget.3 But Speaker Boehner was unwilling to permit a vote on the relevant measures because a majority of his party caucus opposed one.4 Were he to allow the vote, one might think - and he might have thought - the budget might be adopted but his caucus would immediately revolt and replace him as Speaker.

But, I wondered, was that really true? That is, was there some way for Boehner to retain his post of Speaker of the House even after a vote by the House Republican caucus to replace him? The answer seemed obvious, and obviously "yes." He could have proposed a deal to the Democratic minority: "I will resign as Speaker of the House, thereby triggering a vote for a replacement. But I will have one of my twenty or so Republican supporters put my name up for the position. You, though, will not put up Representative Pelosi; instead, you agree to vote for me as the 'new' Speaker. What I get out of this is obvious. What you get out of it is a vote on adopting a budget and avoiding a shutdown (and, though Boehner would not say this out loud, 'whatever concessions you can wring from me on such matters as chairing committees')."5

This is a proposal for a coalition government (in the House), composed of a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans, with the latter in a strong enough bargaining position to extract concessions from the Democrats. But, of course, no one seriously thought that this was a real possibility (and I did not then, nor do I now). Why not?

In this Essay, I speculate about the reasons we do not see coalition governments in the United States, with the proximate aim of identifying interactions between some structural features of our political system - most notably, that Representatives are elected from individual districts - and the modern form political parties take. The ultimate aim of this sketch is to suggest that those who attribute the government's dysfunction to the Constitution may be overstating the Constitution's contribution to those interactions.6 Statutes and norms - both of which are alterable given enough7 political will - may be at the root of dysfunction. Of course, those statutes and norms are sufficiently embedded that, even if not constitutionally entrenched, they make coalition governments extremely unlikely. Speaker Boehner's "decision" to forgo attempting to create one - really, the fact that the possibility probably never crossed his mind - was as close to a certainty as one can get.8

I begin with a relatively mundane account of political calculation. Perhaps Boehner might have thought that the coalition would last only through the next election, after which he would definitely lose the speakership. How might that happen? One way would be that Republicans would lose their majority in the House. That, though, is an ever-present possibility, and it would count against the coalition idea only if the very creation of the coalition would increase the Democrats' chances in the next election (relative to their chances without a coalition and with a shutdown).

If Republicans retained their majority and enough of his allies won reelection, Boehner would be in a position to recreate the coalition government and continue as Speaker. So, another route to Boehner's defeat would be that enough of his allies would lose their seats to challengers from the right, even as Republicans retained their overall majority in the House. With the right numbers, this would have the effect of denying Boehner the possibility of recreating the coalition after the election.9

Exploring this route in a bit more detail opens up more general questions about the U. …

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