BRITISH & AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY
How does the American presidential system differ from the British parliamentary system?
1. Eight Political Variables:
Great Britain's parliamentary system and America's presidential system differ from each other, as regards eight political variables: (1) whether there is a constitutional fusion or separation of the legislative and executive powers of government, (2) the nature and method of selection of the top executive authority in the government, (3) whether the executive, institutionally, is part of or separate from the legislature, (4) whether the top executive office or organ is constitutionally responsible to or independent of the legislature, (5) whether the executive is the agent of the legislature, or the two institutions are coordinate organs of government, (6) the constitutional relationship between the positions of chief of state and head of government, (7) the possibility of divided party control of government, and (8) the nature of the lines of political authority and responsibility.
2. Fusion or Separation of Legislative and Executive Powers:
The Parliamentary System (UK).. Under the British Constitution, there is a fusion, or concentration, of legislative and executive powers in the elective, lower house of Parliament, the House of Commons. The legislature (Parliament) and the top executive authority (the Cabinet) are not constitutionally separate and independent organs of government. The top executive authority, or Cabinet, emerges from and is a part of the legislature.
The Presidential System (USA). The United States Constitution provides for an institutional separation between the legislature and the top executive authority. The legislature (Congress) and the chief executive (the President) are separate and largely independent branches or organs of government. Under the U.S. Constitution, each of the separated branches or institutions of government has its own set of powers. However, the executive and the legislature also share certain powers.
3. The Nature and Method of Selection of the Executive:
The Parliamentary System (UK). In Britain, the top executive organ of government is not elected separately from and independently of the legislature. The Prime Minister and most of the other members of the Cabinet are elected from local parliamentary election districts as members of the House of Commons. The majority in the House of Commons, in effect, chooses the Cabinet, mostly from its own membership in the Commons. While a few Cabinet ministers are chosen from the House of Lords, they are chosen by the Commons majority from the ranks of its party members in the upper chamber.
Whenever a national election results in a new majority in the House of Commons, the Monarch appoints as Prime Minister the clearly recognized top leader of the new majority party in the Commons. Then, the Monarch, on the recommendation of the new Prime Min- ister, appoints the other members of the Cabinet. The Monarch, in appointing the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers, does not exercise independent decisionmaking authority. As we have seen, conventions of the British Constitution dictate that the Monarch always appoint as Prime Minister whoever is chief leader of the majority in the Commons and that the Monarch always follow as well as receive the advice of the Prime Minister, including advice on Cabinet appointments.
A person becomes Prime Minister by being the top leader of the political party that wins a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. A person becomes top leader of his party by being elected to that position by majority vote at a conference of the party MPs--a meeting of party members holding seats in Parliament. The newly elected top party leader, if his party has a clear majority in the Commons, is appointed Prime Minister by the Crown. The new Prime Minister advises the Monarch on Cabinet appointments, after having conferred with the other leading members of his party in the Commons and having obtained their cooperation and support.
Since the Monarch must strictly observe the conventions of the Constitution, the real choice of a Prime Minister and Cabinet is in the hands of the current majority in the Commons. The functions performed by the Monarch, including appointment of Prime Minister and Cabinet, are entirely ceremonial and symbolic. The real power of govern- ment, including selection of the top executive authority, is in the hands of the Commons majority and its leadership elite.
The formal, ceremonial process of the Monarch appointing a Prime Minister and automat- ically following the new Prime Minister's advice, as regards appointment of the other Cabinet members, also occurs whenever the sitting Cabinet resigns, as a consequence of losing a vote of confidence in the Commons, and the Prime Minister does not advise the Monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a new national election. When the Cabinet resigns under these circumstances, a conference of majority-party MPs is likely to elect a new top party leader, who, in strict accordance with constitutional convention, is then appointed Prime Minister by the Monarch. Subsequently, the Crown, again in strict observance of convention, follows the new Prime Minister's regarding appointment of the other Cabinet ministers.
The Presidential System (USA). The U.S. Constitution provides for an independently elected national chief executive, the President. The President is not chosen by the national legislature. He is chosen in a national election which is separate from the congressional elections and which cannot be easily influenced and controlled by Congress.
The President is not elected as a member of either house of Congress. He is elected as chief executive of the whole nation. The President is not elected as a member of the legislature from a single legislative election district by the voters of that district only. He is elected national chief executive by the voters throughout the entire nation, making their choice through the medium of the Electoral College.
4. The Executive Institutionally Part of or Separate from the Legislature:
The Parliamentary System (UK). In the government of the United Kingdom, there is no constitutional wall of separation between the legislature and the executive. The legislative and executive branches of government are united at the top--united in the form of the Cabinet, which is both the top executive authority in the government and the central leadership of the majority party in the legislature. The same group of people--the Cabinet --(1) are members of the legislature, (2) lead and manage the business of the legislature, (3) occupy the top offices in the executive branch, and (4) control and direct the executive branch. The top executive authority emerges from and continues to be part of the legislature. The Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers simultaneously occupy the top executive offices in the government and hold seats in Parliament, speaking and voting on measures before their respective chambers.
The Presidential System (USA). Under the U.S. Constitution, the President and other executive officers are not permitted to hold seats in the legislature at the same time they hold offices in the executive branch of the government. The Constitution requires a strict separation of the personnel of the executive and legislative organs of government. The same people may not simultaneously hold formal office in and exercise the authority of both branches of government.
If a person occupying an executive or administrative office in the national government is elected to either chamber of Congress, he must resign the executive or administrative office before he can take his seat in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. If an incumbent U.S. Senator or Representative is elected President or Vice President, he cannot be inaugurated as President or Vice President until he resigns his seat in Congress. A member of either house of Congress cannot accept a presidential appointment as presidential staff officer, Cabinet-level department head, or other executive or administra- tive officer until he resigns his seat in the Senate or House of Representatives.
Formally and legally, the President is not the majority party leader in the legislature. Under the Constitution, he is leader in neither of the two houses of Congress. On occasion, however, the President may function informally and unofficially as policy leader of one or both chambers of Congress in particular areas of national public policy.
5. Executive Responsibility to or Independence of the Legislature:
The Parliamentary System (UK). The tenure and prerogatives of the top executive authority, the Cabinet are dependent upon the continuing support of a majority in the lower house of the legislature. To retain the position of top executive authority in the govern- ment, as well as the role of central leadership of the majority in the House of Commons, the Cabinet must continue to enjoy the confidence and support of the Commons majority. If the Cabinet loses a vote of confidence in the Commons, this means that the Cabinet no longer has the support of the majority in the Commons. Whenever this occurs, the sitting Cabinet has two alternative courses of action.
Alternative One: The Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers, acting jointly, resign their positions in the Cabinet (but not their seats in Parliament). This action is followed by a conference of MPs of the existing majority party--the party holding a majority of the seats in the Commons. The majority party conference elects a new chief party leader, who is then appointed Prime Minister by the Monarch.
Alternative Two: The Prime Minister goes before the Monarch and advises her to dissolve Parliament and call a new election, action which the Monarch, under the conventions of the Constitution, must take when advised to do so by the Prime Minister.
The second alternative course of action is very likely to be taken when the Prime Minister and other leading members of the Cabinet are convinced that (1) currently, their leadership of the nation and its government has strong and widespread support among the voters throughout British society, as well as among the local constituency associations and rank-and-file members of their own party, and (2) if a national election is held within a relatively short period of time, their party, the current majority in the Commons, will have the better chance of winning the election, thereby retaining a majority of the seats in the Commons, remaining the governing party, and vindicating the policies of the existing Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Cabinet is directly responsible to the House of Commons. The Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, is collectively, or jointly, responsible to the Commons. The Prime Minis- ter, as Prime Minister, is not directly responsible to the voters of the United Kingdom. The only voters to whom the Prime Minister is directly responsible, in a formal-legal sense, are the voters in the parliamentary election district where he was elected as a member of the House of Commons, and he is directly responsible to them as a member of Parliament (MP), not as Prime Minister.
The Presidential System (USA). The U.S. Constitution provides America's national chief executive with a separate and independent power base, a power base separate from and independent of that of the national legislature. The tenure and prerogatives of the chief executive do not depend upon majority support in the legislature. Not only does the chief executive possess a separate set of powers granted by the Constitution, but he also serves during a fixed term of office. Under the Constitution, the President is elected to a four-year term and is eligible for reelection to a second four-year term. The President's tenure cannot be abruptly terminated by simple majority vote in either house of Congress or in both houses. The President cannot, against his will, be removed from office before the expiration of his term, except by the very difficult and cumbersome process of congression- al impeachment, trial and conviction, which requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives to pass the articles of impeachment and a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict the President on the impeachment charges and remove him from office.
The President, possessing a separate grant of constitutional authority and elected independently Congress to a fixed term which the latter cannot easily cut short, is not primarily responsible to the legislature. Instead, he is directly and primarily responsible to the American voters.
6. The Executive as the Agent of the Legislature, or the Executive and Legislature as Coordinate Organs of Government:
The Parliamentary System (UK). The British Cabinet is the agent of the lower house of Parliament. The Cabinet is the executive and steering committee of the majority in the House of Commons.
The Presidential System (USA). In the U.S. national government, the chief executive and the legislature are equal in rank. Neither organ of government is the agent of the other. Neither is subordinate to the other. The President and the Congress are coordinate organs of government--i.e., governmental organs equal in rank.
7. The Relationship between the Chief of State and the Head of Government:
The Parliamentary System (UK). The Prime Minister is the head of government in Great Britain. As chairman, or head, of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister leads and coordinates his colleagues in that body and, in terms of actual political power, is greatly elevated above them. The Prime Minister's position as head of the Cabinet, the top executive authority in the government, makes him the leading factor in shaping public policy as well as in supervising and directing the executive departments and agencies responsible for carrying out decisions on public policy. The Prime Minister, as chairman of the Cabinet and chief leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, is the link between Cabinet and Monarch and the most important and most highly visible political leader in British society.
In Britain, the positions of head of government and chief of state are separate offices. While the Prime Minister is the effective head of government, the Monarch is the chief of state and performs the purely symbolic and ceremonial functions of that office.
The Presidential System (USA). In the U.S. national government, the functions of chief of state and those of head of government are performed by a single popularly elected top executive officer, the President. The President is both ceremonial chief of state and effective head of government. The President is his own prime minister.
8. The Possibility of Divided Party Control of Government:
The Parliamentary System (UK). There is no possibility of divided party control of the principal organs of British government, as long as the United Kingdom has a strong two-party system and the leading party has a clear and secure majority in the House of Commons. The party that has such a majority in and therefore controls the House of Commons, the more powerful chamber of the legislature, also controls the top executive organ, the Cabinet, which supervises and directs the executive departments and agencies. When one political party wins a majority of the seats in the Commons, that party's chosen top leader becomes Prime Minister. The other Cabinet ministers are selected mainly from among the leading members of the majority in the Commons, a few being chosen from among the members of the party in the House of Lords.
The Presidential System (USA). Since the election of the President and the election of members of Congress are separate and independent elections, a political party's victory in the presidential election does not necessarily mean that the party will emerge victorious in the congressional elections. Conversely, the fact that a party has won a majority of the seats in one or both houses of Congress does not necessarily mean that it has also won the Presidency. Therefore, control of the principal organs of the U.S. national government may be divided between rival parties. The President, his staff officers, members of his Cabinet, and other high-ranking executive officers may be of one political party, while a majority in one or both chambers of Congress may be of the opposition party.
9. Lines of Political Authority and Responsibility:
The Parliamentary System (UK). The voters elect the House of Commons, and the Commons, in effect, chooses the top executive authority, the Cabinet. The legislature derives its mandate to govern from and is directly responsible to the voters. The executive derives derives its mandate from and is directly responsible to the legislature. The result is a single, uninterrupted line of political authority running from the voters through the legislature to the executive as well as a single, uninterrupted line of political responsibility running from the executive through the legislature to the voters.
The Presidential System (USA). The top executive authority, the President, is, in effect, elected by popular vote. Since the President is not chosen by Congress, the executive is not primarily responsible to the legislature. The chief executive, like the legislature, receives his mandate to govern from the voters and is thereby directly responsible to them. Moreover, the President, U.S. Representativess, and U.S. Senators are chosen by and responsible to different constituencies with varying and competing interests. The consequence is multiple and fragmented lines of political authority and responsibility.
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