There are a few USA third party politic questions out there, but I wanted to focus on any mechanism designed to limit 3rd party influence had a minority gov't setup came to be in the USA. Minority govt's will frequently have the issue of 'being held hostage to minority or special interest groups', meaning that a special interest party can tip the scale between two ruling parties ensuring that their stance is forefront on every issue.

Scenario: For whatever reason, a third party in the USA gains a bit of traction. This can range from a special interest group that fragments from the larger whole (a 'wall' party emerges focused entirely on building the wall between mexico and the US, or a 'public healthcare' party that is entirely focused on creating public healthcare without really having any other defined policy beyond their single scope. A "green" party often fills this role in other nations) or a new centrist party that draws support from undecided and both sides of the aisle. Which ever the case, assume the new setup in both the house and senate are now split so that neither republican nor democrat can form a majority (senate is 48 republican, 48 democrat, and 4 'other'). Ultimately this setup would mean that the Republicans nor Democrats could put through policy without winning over support of this third party, basically allowing the 3rd party to put their spin on any given bill to suit their agenda prior to supporting (the third party here gain tremendous influence for a tiny portion of seats). Of course policy that both republicans and democrats support wouldn't be effected in this scenario.

I do see the ability for independent senators to caucus with the democrats and I'm under the impression minority politics would function similar to that. Are their any particular rules/laws/mechanisms that would address how a minority government within the US?

(no minority politics tag appears to exist?)

  • This has already happened. Democrats had 48 or 49 seats and needed support of "independent" senators (who somehow voted almost 100% in sync with Democrats, but technically speaking they did get elected as "Independent") to gain majority - in other words, the theoretical setup you mentioned in second to last paragraph actually happened in reality.
    – user4012
    Nov 17, 2017 at 20:32
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    Maybe this is a terminology issue, but, AFAIK, the US doesn't deal with minority/majority government concepts like a parliamentary system does. So, no, I don't think there are any specific rules/laws/mechanisms that would address that.
    – user1530
    Nov 17, 2017 at 21:02
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    The idea of a "minority government" doesn't really exist in the US in the same way it would in the UK or Canada, given the clear separation of the legislative and executive branches that exists in the US. There is a mechanism for dealing with the case when no Presidential candidate gets an overall majority of the electoral college, but that's not quite the same as what I think you're asking.
    – Joe C
    Nov 17, 2017 at 22:47

2 Answers 2


Your scenario is entirely plausible under the right conditions and it wouldn't even need a 3rd party. Divisions among the existing party could work the same way.

Alternate example (and the current setup), 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats, centrist leaning republicans can (and have) foiled Republican bills like healthcare. Also, during Obama's first term with 58 democratic senators, 2 mostly/somewhat democrat voting independents and 40 republicans, the senate version of the blue dog coalition ensured that Obama's 60 vote block had a measure of conservative voice and that it wasn't just a rubber stamp of approval for Obama.

The best example I can think of, when a major bill had significant influence by a small number of senators was Obamacare. Obama wanted and campaigned on a public option. The House passed a bill with public option, but the Senate, even though the majority (perhaps as many as 59), would have voted for a public option bill, they needed 60 with the filibuster and they didn't have it. The Republicans were united against and they only needed 1 democrat or independent to vote against. That gave the democrats on the fence a lot of power.

A few of them who were on the fence were paid off, the most famous was the Cornhusker Kickback for blue-dog Ben Nelson (NE) and that kickback didn't make it into the final bill, but it's still an example about how a senator on the fence on a particular bill can get something nice for his constituency on a close vote.

Joe Lieberman (independent) had an even bigger impact. He flat out refused to sign a bill with Obama's public option, and he insisted it be entirely private options (outside of the expansion of Medicaid). Blocking the public option changed Obamacare sufficiently that I would prefer it if we called it Liebermancare, because I think it's more his design, not Obama's. Unlike your scenario, however, Lieberman didn't get anything, other than (in my opinion), making the bill closer to John McCain's healthcare proposal when he was running against Obama.

Similarly, there's some evidence of republican "payoffs" to the more centrist republican senators who didn't want to lose their medicaid expansion and hurt a share of their voters. The bill didn't pass but the payoff was still offered.

In theory, 48/48/4 could give a lot of power to the 4 and they could get a lot of political favors, provided the 48 on each side are strongly united and deeply divided against each other, and we're seeing more of the divided against in American politics recently. Obama's 58-2-40 in 2008 might even give the 2 an even better wedge.

Where the wedge breaks down is if the 48 aren't united. Republican bills, for some time now, have risked losing votes from both ends, the "it's not centrist enough" side and from the "it's not far right enough" side, like when Rand Paul joined John McCain and Susan Collins voting against this version of a new healthcare bill.

The wedge measurably weakens when you have a few voters from one party crossing sides on most votes, which is how it used to be and arguably how the system is supposed to work. The wedge is strongest when you have strong unity within the two major parties and strong division between those parties.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that one of the Republicans stumbling blocks these days is a lack of unity and difficulty in getting 50 votes on many bills despite 52 senators. If, instead of 52 (with some fringe) and 48 locked against, it was 52-4-44 with the 4 operating as swing-votes, then those 4 might wield a lot of power. It all depends on the right conditions.

Keep in mind, this theoretical group of 4 independents still couldn't write bills for the most part, but mostly just influence them/kill them.


The separation of powers in the US is a forcing function to a two-party system. The history of the US fairly well demonstrates this; third parties just do not last in a position of power and generally have minimal impact.

As the President is elected independently (contrast to parliamentary systems) and is done so through the Electoral College, third parties do more to defeat candidates than to help elect them to the Presidency. Refer to Ross Perot in 1992 who cost GHW Bush the election (purposefully, according to some). The President is always the dominant figure of his or her party; and has great influence even as a candidate prior to being elected. Once elected, there is no mechanism for a no-confidence vote as with a Parliamentary Prime Minister. Once elected, they can only be impeached and tried; IIRC, this has never been done successfully; Nixon resigned prior to being impeached. There is therefore almost no third-party influence on a sitting President, while at the same time, the President is hugely influential over his own party. IMHO, this is the true reason why third parties do not amount to much; the President is relatively overwhelmingly powerful and need not defer to third parties.

Meanwhile, in the US Senate, the Vice President is the top official and is not voted on in any way by the Senate itself. They have no choice on who their own body President is, it is automatically the Vice-President. The Majority and Minority leaders are powerful, but do not in any sense make up any portion of the government as they might in a Parliamentary system. Still there is room in the Senate for a little coalition-building.

In the House, there is more opportunity for the need to build a coalition, but in practice this has just always worked out to be intra-party politics and not inter-party. I'd be interested in the thoughts of others as to why the US House members are almost always the member of one or the other of the two principal parties. IMHO, Presidential coattails are very powerful in focusing representative elections onto the party of the president (or presidential candidate) or alternatively on the presidential opposition party.

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    "The separation of powers in the US is a forcing function to a two-party system": why? It could be argued that the first-past-the-post system for congressional elections, and winner-take-all for presidential elections, greatly favour the two largest parties. Nov 17, 2017 at 23:12
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    While technically correct that the vice president is the president of the senate, in modern times (post 60's) a pro tem is elected from within to handle the work and the vice president only comes when he's wanted.
    – user9389
    Nov 17, 2017 at 23:54
  • @notstoreboughtdirt While the importance of the Senate President Pro Tem has (arguably?) increased over time, I think it's worth noting (as an addition, not a correction) that the office itself is not a recent one, and is present in Article I, Section 3.
    – owjburnham
    Nov 21, 2017 at 15:54

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