A lot of the focus of English and American studies into the evolution of constitutional governance naturally focuses on England.  The Magna Carta with its colorful villain in King John is too hard to pass up.  But the English Kings were not the only monarchs to find their power checked.  Various forms of parliaments rose up across Europe as monarchs haggled with their merchants and barons for funds while trying to avoid rebellion.

Eastern Europe was not immune to such trends.  Seven years after the Magna Carta, the Hungarian nobility forced their extravagant King Andrew II to issue the Golden Bull granting the nobility greater powers.

A series of dynastic shifts in the three premier East European monarchies of Bohemia (Přemyslid to Luxembourg to Jagiellon) , Hungary (Árpád to Angevin to Luxembourg) and Poland (Piast to Angevin to Jagiellon) caused a steady shift of royal power to the nobility (and as the list shows the three countries imported each others princes very often).  Each new foreign dynasty brought with it new privileges to keep the nobility happy.

However in the 16th century this pattern breaks.  Bohemia and Hungary fell to the Hapsburgs (who also married themselves into the crowns of of Spain,. (briefly Portugal and England), Naples, Milan, Sicily and the Netherlands).  After the Thirty Years War the ramshackle Hapsburg monarchy pulled back many of the privileges granted to the nobility.  Poland went in a different direction.  Faced with the impending death of the last male Jagiellon the magnates of Poland-Lithuania instituted an elective monarchy.

While the crown remained in the hands of female line descendants of the Jagiellons until 1660, the elective principle and the haggling by prospective monarchs for support took full control.    It was around this time that the legislative innovation that crippled Polish government for the next century was introduced – the Liberium Veto.

This measure allowed a single member of the Polish Sejm (parliament) to end the session and nullify all legislation by shouting Nie pozwalam! (I do not allow!).  Somehow this pernicious measure was allowed to continue.  Egged on with bribes from neighboring Prussia and Russia who were only too happy to see a weakened crumbling Poland and delusional deputies who considered this privilege as the hallmark of liberty, attempts at reform were thwarted for a century.  It wasn’t until 1764 that someone utilized a technicality to bypass this measure.  But by then it was too late.  In three successive partitions (1772, 1793, and 1795), Poland was wiped off the European map.

Obviously the filibuster does not even come close to the liberium veto.  But when a minority uses it of pretty much every single piece of legislation (including for example overwhelmingly popular bills like the military budget), it is hard to always appreciate the difference.  Not surprisingly calls to abolish it are rising.

In some ways the Democrats conversion on the filibuster (and boy did they love it when George W. Bush was President) mirrors their conversion on the advisability of the Independent Counsel Act.  When independent counsels targeted Republican Administrations all was fine.  It took one out of control independent counsel who acted like a heat seeking missile aimed at Bill Clinton’s rear end for the Democrats to switch sides on the issue.

The Republicans do risk overplaying their hand on this issue (they used more than 100 of them last year).  There is no constitutional right to a filibuster and the repeated use on every single item (which will likely increase with Scott Brown’s election) will increase the Democrats incentive to explore procedural technicalities like reconciliation to force a bill to a vote or even the nuclear option previously considered by the Bush Administration (which will be really hard for the Republicans to oppose since they drafted it).

The realization that they will one day return to the minority likely makes some Democrats squeamish on the issue.  But the legislative process in the Senate is currently broken on many issues (and don’t even get me started on the issue of anonymous Senatorial holds which have made the appointment of the President’s cabinet a travesty).  More appropriate protections for the minority (like giving them the ability to delay but not eternally block legislation) can be considered.  Otherwise ridiculous headlines like “Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate” will continue to proliferate around our broken legislative process.

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Posted on 21-12-2009
Filed Under (Checks & Balances) by Rashtrakut

The ruckus about the creation of a new Telangana state in India brought to the forefront the issue of “small” vs. “big” states in India.  Federal polity in India has one marked difference that that in the United States.  The United States of America was created by a compact among its constituent states which preceded the national entity.  As a result, even though the constitution permits the splitting or merging of states (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 1) with two exceptions (Maine which was carved out from Massachusetts to create a free state to balance Missouri under the Missouri compromise and West Virginia which seceded from Virginia at the start of the civil war) the American states (territories are a different matter) have been relatively sacrosanct.

This was not the case in India.  The mish mash of the provinces of British India and the princely states that acceded to the India at independence made the reorganization of states essential.  Even though the trauma of partition ensured that the power of states would be curbed (more on that later), in the 1950s the fateful decision was made to reorganize the states on linguistic grounds rather than administrative efficiency.  Larger states have always brought with them a concern that the political influential areas would reap state largess while the less fortunate areas would be ignored.  As a result, demands for breaking up some of the larger states have simmered in the background since the reorganization of the states.

A decade ago the agitators for smaller states found some hope.  Uttarkhand and Jharkhand were carved out of the two most populous states in India.  Chattisgarh was carved out of the geographically largest state in India.  This brought the demand for Telangana to the forefront.  A Telugu speaking region merged into Andhra Pradesh, Telangana previously was part of the former princely state of Hyderabad.  While some of the princely states like Mysore, Baroda and Gwalior were relatively well administered, Hyderabad was not.  The region remained a resource poor economic and educational backwater.  Apart from the capital Hyderabad, a large portion of the province has felt ignored in favor of the more prosperous coastal regions of the state.  The argument was that a Telangana state would create with a more responsive local government which will boost regional development.

Unfortunately the  backing for the position is mixed. Read the rest of this entry »

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This link by Andrew Sullivan about a proposal to replace the House of Lords got me thinking about an issue that has fascinated me for a while.  How did government structures evolve as to their current form and how does a country choose a structure best suited for its needs?  Why do countries with a similar socio-economic background have differing successes with the same governmental system?  As Afghanistan founders in its presidential election and Iraq struggles to draft an electoral law these are pressing concerns in current affairs.  So this will be the first of a series of (non-academic) ramblings on the subject surveying the evolution of ruling systems through history.

Thomas Bingham’s proposal in someways is emblematic of the patchwork way the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution has evolved.  Most of its constitutional developments have been ad hoc attempts to address the problem at hand rather than a result of a comprehensive review of how and why things are the way they are.

King John abuses the nobility, get the Magna Carta.  Henry III squanders money on foreign favorites and wars (and a quixotic attempt to place his son on the Sicilian throne) get the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster.  Edward I wants money for wars in France and Scotland get a parliament.  Worried about a Catholic monarch, toss him out, restrict his successor’s power and bar Catholics from the throne.  Worried Scotland will break the personal union of the crowns when the childless Queen Anne dies. ram through an Act of Union. Expand the franchise as needed.  If the House of Lords gets in your way, cut down its power and alter its composition.  The United Kingdom did completely separate out its judiciary from Parliament until October 1, 2009 when it finally created a Supreme Court.  Until then it was a function of the House of Lords.

The piecemeal approach has generally worked, but there are some major inequities in the current system.  Even Thomas Bingham’s proposal does not address the problem created by devolution of powers to a Scottish and Welsh Parliament.  Scottish and Welsh ministers in Westminster can vote on solely English issues.  However, English MPs cannot vote on items devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.  The London based governments of England have historically been slow to address issues of concern in the far off regions of the country. Read the rest of this entry »

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