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Checks and Balances

How the US Government resists change

Having been born and raised in a vast country (Canada) where changes are gradual, I particularly notice how nimble New Zealand is.  Like a jet ski compared to a large ship.  The best example of this was in the mid 1980s when New Zealand did a 180 degree turn from being one of the most regulated economies in the western world to being the opposite.  Canada may be slow to set off in a new direction, but the U.S. is glacial.  And that’s a fine thing given the current commander in chief.

Hands up all those who understand the structure of the American government!  Just as I thought; your hand is still resting on your mouse.  Well it’s structure builds in resistance to change.  The U.S. has two independent parliaments, (so to speak) that have to approve of new laws.  These are the House of Representatives  (‘The House’) and the Senate. 

In New Zealand if the Prime Minister gets an idea in his or her head, they need to convince the majority of the MPs that it’s a good idea, and the idea will come into effect.  In order to become the Prime Minister, a majority of the MPs are either in the Prime Ministers party or a party aligned to them, so unless the idea is particularly objectionable it will pass.

In the U.S. if the President gets an idea, he or she need to convince two parliaments (so to speak) (the house and the senate) that it’s a good idea, and the election of the President has nothing to do with the election of the house and the senate.   At the moment Trump’s party controls both the house of representatives and the senate, but not all the members of the president’s party feel obliged to go along with the president’s ideas.   In New Zealand, MPs who came into parliament sharing coat tails with the prime minister are under obligation to support the PM. 

But wait there’s more!  If an idea does get past the house and the senate, there’s the Supreme Court.  It can scotch plans on the basis of whether it decides an idea is constitutional or not.

So you can see why Trump is having difficulty doing anything.

The House of Representative is the most similar thing to our parliament.  Each of the 435 members represents roughly the same number of people.  Members get elected for two years.

In contrast, the Senate is made up of two senator from each state, regardless of population.  Senators have six year terms.  Being a senator sounds like a better job; you don’t have to spend all your time preparing for the next election.  Roughly one third of the senators come up for re-election every two years.

The Presidential election is bit like the ‘first past the post system’ we had before MMP.  Each state is allocated the same number of electors as that state has representatives in both the house and the senate.  Those electors then cast their vote for President based on the popular vote in their state (interestingly, In some states they are not required to do so by law.  That is: they could make up their own minds with disregard for the popular vote).  Confused?  Don’t worry, in practice it works like first past the post for each state. Regardless of whether a candidate wins by a landslide or just squeak in, they carry away that state.  That is why you can end up not being president even though you got the most votes.  That’s what happened to Hillary.

 P.S.  The district of Columbia, (which is not a state) gets three votes.

America is made up of fifty states with populations ranging from much larger than New Zealand to much smaller.  Each has its own government.  If you live in America, election are underway most of the time.

If you think being a Senator is an alright job, that’s nothing compared to be appointed to the supreme court.  Supreme court judges get a job for life on full pay.   An interesting thing happens, however, to judges on the supreme court.  Relieved of any opportunity for personal betterment the best characteristic of humanity rise to the top.  What is ‘right’ is debated rather than what is personally advantageous.  The supreme court may sound like and old boys club, but history has proven it’s worth. 

I am often aghast as a how archaic American institutions are.  Their money looks like something out of the 19th century, and must be far easier to counterfeit than ours.  Their rejection of metrics is Luddite in the extreme.  Forty years after World War Two when flying into America you had to complete a form saying that you weren’t affiliated with the Nazi’s. 

At this time, however, inertia that is thwarting the president,  might be the thing that enables us to get through the next three years unscathed.

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