The debt-ceiling negotiations going on in Washington right now have not, to put it mildly, cast the collected membership of the U.S. Congress in the most flattering possible light. In theory, members of Congress are meant to serve as enlightened representatives of their local districts, virtuous stewards of the common good. But the last several weeks have offered instead a portrait of shallow partisans willing to risk global economic catastrophe for the sake of indulging their personal vanity and furthering their own agendas, and a legislature unable to accomplish even the most basic of tasks.
Sadly, the United States is not the only country suffering from its lawmakers in this fashion. Legislative gridlock is commonplace -- as are the partisanship and vanity at its root -- in governments around the world. At least the United States can blame the creakiness of its institutions on the fact that they were designed some 200 years ago: Most other countries don't have nearly such a convenient excuse -- and, yet, they act just as shamelessly.
Think America's divided government is a hassle? Try not having a government at all. Belgium has lacked a functioning parliamentary majority for more than a year, ever since its last national election on June 13, 2010. Negotiations to form a new majority have broken down eight times over the past 400 days, as the country earned the dubious distinction of entering the Guinness World Records for the longest period of time without a government. The major Belgian parties aren't just talking past one another; they don't even share the same native language -- and that's a big part of the problem. Belgium's Flemish-speaking region wants to secure more financial autonomy, the better to enjoy the rewards of its economic success, but the country's French-speaking territories, dependent as they are on Flemish tax receipts to maintain their welfare provisions, have refused.
In the absence of any majority in Parliament, previous Prime Minister Yves Leterme has continued to preside over cabinet meetings, though proposals for ambitious legislation have been put on hold indefinitely. That's not to say, however, that Belgians necessarily notice any disruption in their daily lives. Many state functions, from education to welfare, are already administered at the regional, rather than the federal, level. Leterme's caretaker government, meanwhile, did succeed in serving its pre-scheduled six-month stint as president of the European Council in 2010. And in 2011, Belgium managed to send four fighter jets and 150 military personnel to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya.
Apparently, the reason that Parliament has yet to call for a new election is for fear that the international community (and bond markets) will judge the country incapable of solving its problems (though one would have thought that train had long ago left the station). Presiding over the stalemate, and tirelessly goading all parties to reach a final resolution, is the lonely King Albert II -- among the few symbols of national identity, apart from frites, that enjoys broad recognition throughout the country.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images