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Why the French got rid of midterm elections

The 2014 midterm elections are almost certain to result in another two years of divided government, with Republicans controlling Congress (or at the very least the House) and President Obama in the White House. That means another two years of policy stasis, where nothing of substance can be changed except through high-stakes political brinkmanship of the kind seen during the 2011 debt ceiling showdown or the 2013 government shutdown.

This is not a uniquely American problem. In the 1980s and 90s, France struggled with the same issue, as a socialist president was forced to deal with a right-leaning parliament, and then a right-leaning president with a socialist parliament. But rather than grudgingly tolerate endless gridlock and disastrous confrontations, France decided to change its electoral system to make governing more common and paralysis rarer.

The French experience

mitterand valls

French president François Hollande (left) and Prime Minister Manuel Valls (right) are both Socialists — something made possible, in part, by a 2000 reform to French elections. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

France has a semi-presidential system, with both a prime minister leading parliament and a directly elected president. When the prime minister and president are members of the same party, it works like a presidential system, with the president setting the agenda and his allies in parliament implementing it. But because presidential terms and parliamentary elections weren't aligned, divided government — or "cohabitation", as the French called it — was possible.

Due to the frictions that resulted from that arrangement, a referendum passed to align presidential and parliamentary terms. In the 14 years before the referendum, there were three periods of cohabitation totaling seven years. In the 14 after, there have been only two years of cohabitation — from 2000-02, a holdover from before the reform was enacted.

We don't have a lot of elections to go on, of course, but so far the theory behind the reform — that joint elections would decrease the chance of divided government — has been vindicated.

There's every reason to think that term alignment would have a similar effect in America. The best approach would be a constitutional amendment — similar to one proposed in the New York Times by Duke's David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan —  making it so that the whole House and whole Senate are elected simultaneously with the president, with no elections in between. In other words, a loosely adapted version of the French plan. You could even make everyone's term six years long to ensure that Senators don't lose anything.

That won't eliminate divided government. For one thing, districting will still matter; Democrats won the popular vote for both the presidency and the House in 2012, but failed to win a majority of seats in the latter because Democratic voters are concentrated in fewer districts than Republican voters are, among other factors.

And voters could still choose to ticket-split. There are a number of states where every state legislator is elected at the same time as the governor, but where divided government is still common; New Hampshire elects everybody every two years, but has a Republican Senate and a Democratic governor.

But France's experience suggests that even if term alignment doesn't eliminate divided government, it makes it less common.

Why divided government is dangerous

debt ceiling negotiation

President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with House Speaker John Boehner and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to work out a debt limit deal, on July 20, 2011. (Pete Souza / White House)

Until very recently, divided government was, while a problem, at least tolerable — but that was because the two political parties weren't anything like today's political parties.

While they currently benefit Republicans, midterms have historically been much kinder to Democrats. They controlled the House from 1952 through 1994, despite 28 years of Republican presidencies, in large part by performing well in off years. But the Democratic House didn't prevent the five Republican presidents of that period from passing legislation. The bipartisanship of the era was reliant on a much weaker party system, in which a substantial share of the Democratic coalition was made up of conservative Southern segregationists, who were often closer ideologically to Republican presidents than Democratic ones. By contrast, Republicans also had a number of liberals and moderates, who could work with Democratic presidents:

polarization chart

(Data by Howard Rosenthal and Keith Poole)

Since then, the parties have become much better sorted ideologically (as illustrated by the above data on Congressional party ideologies). That means that individual members of each party have less to gain by reaching across the aisle. They're less likely to find an ideologically sympathetic partner. Their policy preferences are their parties', and the best way to advance them is to gain large majorities for their party. That provides a further incentive against making deals that could electorally benefit the other party. There's just very little reason for deals to be made unless the alternative is something awful, like a government shutdown or national default.

And so we get things like the 1995/96 and 2013 government shutdowns and the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. Deals are possible, but at a significant cost. It hasn't ended in total catastrophe thus far, but the tendency in presidential systems of government is for conflicts between the legislature and the executive to be resolved by the executive seizing additional powers, or by way of a military coup, or otherwise in a way that's corrosive to political stability and democracy. It's not an accident that parliamentary democracies, where this problem doesn't arise at all, have a better track record of survival than presidential ones.

How to get accountability

cameron osborne

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne really are accountable for the economy they produce. (Anthony Devlin - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

There's also a more abstract case to be made against divided government. In practice, voters, regardless of country, vote largely on economic grounds. They hold their governments accountable for the economy they've produced. But accountability requires responsibility, and divided government diffuses responsibility to a degree where accountability is impossible.

David Cameron is responsible for Britain's economy. He picks the head of the central bank, he sets the inflation target that bank is aiming for, he decides how much to tax and spend, etc. So when Britons vote next year, based on the state of the economy, they'll be making a fair judgment. They'll be judging Cameron on things he can, in fact, control.

Barack Obama is not similarly responsible for America's economy — but neither is John Boehner, or Harry Reid, or Janet Yellen, etc. No one holds the degree of ultimate power over economic matters that leaders in parliamentary systems do. The result is that, in bad times, voters just punish the president's party regardless of whether they're at fault, or how much they're at fault. Indeed, fewer than half of all Americans can accurately identify which parties control the House and the Senate:

House Senate control

Pew

That's not a situation where leaders can be held to account for what they actually did. Accountability matters, but it requires voters to be clear on who actually holds power, and elected leaders to have the ability to enact their agenda so it can be judged by the voters. Passing French-style reforms wouldn't guarantee any of this, but it would help.

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