The Politics of Parliamentary Debate

Queen's Speech debate

Sven-Oliver Proksch and Jonathan B. Slapin, the authors of The Politics of Parliamentary Debate, compare the systems of debate that keep governments from the US to Germany to New Zealand considering different points of view.


Debating and voting are arguably the two most important activities of members serving in democratically elected parliaments. Scholars of democratic politics pay significant attention to voting patterns in parliaments, but they spend less time exploring the politics of the debates preceding the votes. On one level, the neglect of speech in favor of votes seems reasonable. Votes may actually lead to policy change while speeches do not (or at least not directly). Nevertheless, debate consumes a significant amount of parliamentary time, may cover topics that never come up for a vote, and may allow members to stake out a more nuanced position. Moreover, parliaments vary significantly in the rules they use to govern debate.

Our recent book, The Politics of Parliamentary Debate: Parties, Rebels, and Representation, explores the politics underpinning parliamentary debate by examining patterns of debate participation in the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand and the European Parliament. We demonstrate that parliamentary debate can provide insights into party politics and democratic representation that studies of parliamentary voting alone cannot.

We argue that legislative speech is, first and foremost, a partisan act meant to stake out policy positions and communicate them to voters, rather than an individual act of deliberation and persuasion. Through legislative speech, legislators raise their profile (or that of their party) and demonstrate to voters that they are standing up for constituents’ views on the floor.  While individual legislators may wish to express their personal political views on the floor of parliament, their parliamentary party may have strong incentives to keep their members “on message”, and perhaps keep them off the floor when they refuse to toe the party line. Our research demonstrates that the level of partisan constraints on legislative speech varies significantly with the electoral incentives created by a political system.

Examples of legislative debate from the US and Germany demonstrate the nature of the differences our book seeks to explain. In September 2013, US Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican also from Texas, spoke for 21 hours on the Senate floor to express his dislike for Obamacare and a bill to fund the federal government. His speech significantly raised his national profile, but also drew the ire of some high-ranking Republican colleagues who were seeking to avoid a government shutdown. He did so despite knowing his effort would have no impact on the eventual legislative outcome. Nevertheless, under US Senate rules, Cruz had every right to take the floor.

Contrast this with a controversial floor debate in Germany. During the European Debt Crisis, the German parliament voted to provide significant financial resources to establish a mechanism to supply emergency loans to troubled Eurozone economies. The legislation led to substantial divisions within the two governing parties. However, the party leaders sought to silence all dissenting views from within their parties. They denied speaking time to their members of parliament who disagreed with the party line, a prerogative that the party-centered German system affords party leaders. In a 2011 debate, though, the President of the German Bundestag took an unprecedented decision to allot floor time to two dissenters from the governing parties. Both MPs used the opportunity to criticize the euro policy of the German government. The party leaders reacted immediately. They unanimously criticized the President for allowing the rebels to deliver speeches without the prior consent of their parties. Even leaders of parties that supported the rebels’ position expressed their concern.

In Germany, where electoral rules emphasize the role of parties over individual candidates, parties exercise more control over legislative speech. The UK, meanwhile, is more similar to the US case where electoral rules give individual candidates a more prominent role. There are fewer legislative and partisan constraints on individual legislators’ ability to take the floor and say what they wish. Our book also explores New Zealand, an interesting case in which electoral incentives changed as a result of the adoption of a proportional representation system and led parties to change the level of control they exercise over debate.

In short, the book demonstrates that political scientists can learn much about how parties and their members communicate positions to their electorate through legislative activities beyond voting.

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About the Author: Jonathan B. Slapin

Jonathan B. Slapin is the co-author of The Politics of Parliamentary Debate....

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About the Author: Sven-Oliver Proksch

Sven-Oliver Proksch is the co-author of The Politics of Parliamentary Debate....

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