Our neighbour just got more dysfunctional


C'est Toronto qui le dit

Anyone who thought the U.S. government was close to being dysfunctional before the midterm elections hasn’t seen anything yet.
The next two years will feature even more entrenched fighting between the parties now that the Republicans hold majorities in both the Senate and the House.
It took all of one day – the day of swearing-in for members of the new Congress – for the fighting to break out. Yes, Keystone XL was prominent among the fights, but there were others too, in which the emboldened Republicans announced their plans and the Obama administration hit back, including with veto threats.
A bit of math for those for whom the U.S. political system is, shall we say, complicated. If a president uses his veto, it can be overridden by 67 Senate votes. The Republicans have a Senate majority, but they would obviously need a whack of Democrats to help them override a veto. The chances of finding enough Democrats are slim.
Another bit of math, this one from a recent convention rather than the Constitution. To override a filibuster in the Senate, it has become practice (this is nowhere in law) that 60 votes are needed.
Republicans used this convention in the Senate before the midterms to stymie various Democratic plans. Democrats don’t even need a long memory to remember what Senate Republicans did to them. Democrats, therefore, will not hesitate to return the favour.
Vetoes, super-majorities, divided government, vitriolic rhetoric, gerrymandered congressional districts and, of course, a presidential election campaign that is already under way in a discreet fashion, with would-be candidates raising the first of what must be enormous financial requirements. The gentlemen called the Founding Fathers, who designed a governmental system to be difficult to work, would be proud of their concoction.
Soon, candidates will formally enter the races for their parties’ nominations. These declarations will cause partisan divisions inside each party, and between them, in jockeying for the nominations and general election. The campaigns for the primaries in each party will run throughout this calendar year and into the next.
Oh, and then there is the third arm of the U.S. government: the Supreme Court, with its majority of conservative judges. Opponents of certain Obama laws, angry with political defeat in Congress, are carrying their campaign to the judiciary, sometimes with the support of Republican state attorneys-general.
What does a foreign country whose interests in Washington seldom garner much attention, let alone concern, do with this mess? To whom does Canada speak? The glib answer is: everyone willing to spare an elevator minute. But power, always dispersed, is now even more dispersed, which means even greater diplomatic complexity.
Recently, a clutch of U.S. cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State John Kerry, has visited Canada to meet with their counterparts. So it cannot be said that high-level, face-to-face contacts have not been made. There are telephones, too.
But on Capitol Hill, where “I’ll be with you in a moment, ambassador” is a common refrain, the next two years will be immensely trying. There, in the committees, certain trouble is already brewing over more Buy American legislation. For example, several prominent Democrats are already proclaiming that if Keystone XL is built, all the steel has to be sourced in the United States.
There is a tendency to say the Americans “owe” Canada one – the one being Keystone. It is argued that Canada fought in Afghanistan, sent planes and other assistance to Iraq for the coalition against the Islamic State, generally played fair on trade, quietly played host to the U.S.-Cuba talks, and so on.
Nothing is more useless as a line of analysis than “They owe us something.” We did all these things, or at least our government did, because they were deemed to be in our interest, too. Keystone XL was never going to be about doing something for Canada; it would always be about doing something, or not, for the United States.
The calculation of the impact of decisions on Canada, and on Canada-U.S. relations, in Washington is seldom central, more often an afterthought, and sometimes not a factor at all.
This is not U.S. malice, and it does not mean Canada is entirely without a voice. The United States is a superpower, with a political system that looks inward (as do most systems), was designed to be complicated, and is now largely dysfunctional.

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