It’s been a long time since I studied politics and I don’t claim somehow to have a depth of knowledge in the field. But I do want to mention something that has perplexed me for years and that is how American government would run if, as with the British model of parliamentary democracy, the President actually sat in Congress.
I think that no other crisis in government shows better than the debt crisis the difference between the parliamentary notion of government, which is based on a concept called “responsible government,” and the American notion of “checks and balances.”
The basis of “responsible government” is that the leader of the government is also the leader of the largest party in Parliament, sits in Parliament, and is responsible to Parliament for his or her decisions.
If he or she does something with which Parliament does not agree, there is no need for an impeachment trial. A simple vote of non-confidence topples the government. If the leader of the opposition cannot form a government able to command parliament’s confidence, the country holds a new election.
In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister has the opportunity to translate his or her vision and election promises into legislation. The country has an opportunity to see what the political leader intended and how well those provisions work.
In a congressional system, the President often may not have that opportunity. Or if the President does by the time a bill passes Congress, it may be radically altered, watered down, or loaded with patronage concessions.
Congress and the President are engaged in an endless tug-of-war which one would not see in a Parliamentary system. Yes, the Prime Minister would have to defend his or her government’s actions in question period, but there wouldn’t be the endless late-night phone calls, arm-twisting, dinners at the White House, and cajoling that there is now.
This need for endless cajoling seems to oblige the President to emphasize administration and de-emphasize leadership.
Much of the posturing of Republicans vs. Democrats could not occur. There couldn’t be the situation we see now where a Democratic President must deal with a Republican-dominated house of the legislature.
It seems a long time since a President has been able to show the country what an ambitious vision looks like as law. I’m probably mistaken on this point but I’m tempted to say that the last time this happened was with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
I realize however that, unlike in the parliamentary model, where the lower house has undoubted supremacy, one couldn’t say as easily where the balance of power lies between the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Therefore it wouldn’t be as easy to simply superimpose a parliamentary model on Congress. My remarks are probably only interesting. I can’t conceive of how Congress could be reformed to reflect the British model of parliamentary responsibility.
But, for discussion’s sake, I do want to shine the light on the situation of deadlock we’re watching at present and mention one of the factors that causes it: the fact that the leader of the government does not sit in, and is not the leader of the largest political party in, the legislature.