Reaching across the floor?

In the US election, and recently with Obama getting ready to take office in January, there has been a lot of talk of “reaching across the aisle” and “working with people from both sides of the aisle.” In Canada we talk about “crossing the floor,” which is generally considered to be a bad thing (in fact, Wikipedia has a whole article about it). The aisle and the floor both refer to the boundary between the majority party and the opposition.

Here is the layout for the Canadian House of Commons, showing where all the party members sit. The lone Liberal out to the left is the Speaker.


Here is a plan of the US Senate, which has the same basic layout as the Chamber of the House of Representatives, only smaller.


Here’s a photo of the actual Chamber of the House of Representatives for comparison. The Speaker sits on the rostrum there in front of the flag.


It seems to be a commonly repeated factoid that in the House of Commons, the opposition is separated from the majority by a sword’s length, in order to prevent violence in the case of heated debate. Unlike the House of Commons, which is based on the architecture of British parliament, the Chamber of the House of Representatives doesn’t even have a symbolic sword’s length between the two parties. In fact, as of 1913 seating in the Chamber has been more or less first come first served, with no rules about where in the Chamber congresspeople are supposed to sit. (Still, Democrats tend to gather to the right of the Speaker and Republicans to the left. )

Strangely counterintuitive! It seems as though the Chamber layout is much more suited to a multi-party system like Canada’s, whereas the House of Commons seems as though it was designed more with a two-party system in mind. Maybe if we switched, reaching across the floor would be symbolically more powerful for Americans, considering that as it is, a Republican could reach out and shake hands with a Democrat without even getting up.


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