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January|February 2006

Iceland's Parliament

By Jeffrey F. Liss

ICELAND'S ALTHING, THE WORLD'S OLDDEST ACTIVE PARLIAMENT, was established in 930 A.D. and today meets in the capital city of Reykjavik. In a nation with no king or formal executive leadership, Althing began as a gathering of tribal leaders from across the treeless land, who assembled once a year for two weeks in June to serve as a legislature and a court. Until 1798, the parliament convened outdoors at the present-day Thingvellir National Park, an area of mountainous beauty. A good deal is known about how Althing operated on that site, from a variety of sources that include the Sagas of Icelanders (which one critic described as a "literary Stonehenge"). Hundreds of attendees camped out and conducted business in tents and stone-and-turf booths along Everyman Gorge, which is still visible today.

Althing's presiding official, known as the Lawspeaker, was charged each year with reciting from memory one-third of the existing laws of the land. Speaking from atop the Law Rock overlooking the gorge, he completed this continual review of the laws every three years.

Despite its rugged setting, Althing was no place for violence. The parliament was dedicated to the peaceful resolution of tribal differences, as the ghostly figures suggest in the 1966 abstract painting by the Icelandic artist Nina Tryggvadóttir. When the leaders and their retinues entered, they turned in their spears and axes. Only after the proceedings concluded and Althing adjourned for the year could they again pick up arms, at the moment known as Weapon Taking.

In American government today, the overarching story is the sharp divide between the leaders of both major parties, a split that's especially pronounced in Congress. Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, describes the situation as "the middle-finger approach to governing." In Off Center, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson explain why the reforms in campaign finance, press coverage, and other key factors that are necessary to create "a more competitive, accountable, and responsive political system will be hard" and are likely to take time. But it might do wonders if the members of Congress who have turned it into a chamber of invective were required each day to check their rhetorical bludgeons at the door.

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