Republican cabinet secretaries ought to be scrutinized by Democratic ‘shadow cabinet’ watchdogs

In British Parliament and some other nations’ parliaments, every government cabinet member is under scrutiny by an opposite number from the main opposition party known as a shadow cabinet minister.

While watching Brexit unfold in the past couple of weeks, I thought once again for the zillionth time how much I wish the United States would adopt one feature of the Westminster system of parliamentary government: the shadow cabinet.

The name says it all. The government—in Britain and many other nations—appoints cabinet ministers, and the opposition party chooses members of a shadow cabinet to keep tabs on activities (and possible shenanigans) of those ministers. The shadow cabinet is, in effect, the alternative administration. There can be just a few shadow ministers or a boatload, although the tendency everywhere has been to appoint more and more: the Labour Party in the UK currently has 31, the Canadian Conservative Party 35, the Labour Party in Australia 30, the Democratic Alliance in South Africa 38, and the New Zealand National Party a stunning 55.

Shadow cabinets typically if not officially call themselves the loyal opposition. In Britain and Canada, it’s definitely official—Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Royal Loyals, as it were, the very name making the point that opposition does not equate with treason. No pretense is made that the opposition’s role is nonpartisan. On the contrary, its job is to oppose, and shadow ministers provide its whetstone. Quite often, when elections turn the tables on the party in power, shadow ministers join the real cabinet in their same role. The Canadians have taken to calling their shadow ministers “parliamentary critics,” which, pardon me, is a sad replacement name.

Whatever they’re called, however, shadow cabinets are an effective way to package criticisms of the government. It provides a structured way to get the party’s message out to voters all the time, not just once in a blue moon, but every single time the government does anything the opposition thinks is wrong. Shadow cabinets offer a tactic that helps accomplish this. If we copied this approach in the USA, every time Republicans try to call Democrats obstructionist, this or that shadow secretary amplifies through various media—over and over again—just what it is the Republicans are doing wrong and why. The shadow secretaries can ask before the cameras why the GOP is trying to prevent Americans from hearing what it’s up to. This would offer the chance to repeatedly lay out the Democratic agenda. The members of the shadow cabinet would become the go-to-people for sound bites and Sunday morning TV face time.

Now, if you’re already halfway through writing a reply telling me I’m an idiot who obviously doesn’t understand the differences between parliamentary systems and our own, you can stop typing. I can assure you I do know. I’m just fantasizing here, just as I do when I suggest that the 31 U.S. cities with a population larger than Wyoming’s should have as many U.S. senators as the Cowboy State does. That’s just not going to happen, at least not in my lifetime. But it sure would be good if it did.

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Thanks !

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