Jonathan Zealander, Politics Student at the Hertfordshire School of Humanities
Government entails many elements, most notably ‘the democratic legitimacy of a system is generally evaluated through the parameters of accountability and representation’ (Reale, 2003, p.18). This essay shall set out why parliamentary systems afford a more effective form of government.
The following essay will analyse Parliamentary and Presidential structures individually, drawing comparisons between the United States of America (US) and the United Kingdom (UK).
Parliamentary systems are characterised by fused powers, under parliamentary structures, as a legislative parliament is elected and the executive powers are derived from elected assembly (Carey, 2008, p.92), spearheaded by the Prime Ministerial position as head of government. The UK’s Parliamentary system remains a constitutional monarchy, however the Prime Minister holds a number of prerogative influences, derivative of monarchical powers. The Prime Minister of the UK carries actions out on behalf of the monarch (Buckley, 2006, p.11), for example, negotiating foreign treaties (Barlett and Everett, 2017, p.3). The monarchy remains largely symbolic, effectively making the British Prime Minister head of state. Additionally the UK is categorised as a Bicameral parliamentary system, meaning that there are two legislative chambers (Strom, 2000, p.287). The upper chamber, the House of Lords are unelected, and the government are typically accountable to the House of Commons. On the other hand, Presidential systems are characterised by a separation of powers. The President serves as head of state, and chief of the executive, however, they are not members of the legislature. The terms of presidential power are fixed, for example US Presidents may serve maximum, two four-year terms. Presidential figureheads are not based on mutual confidence of the Parliament. The US, can impeach presidents under its constitution, and their governing branches encompass numerous strategic constitutional checks and balances. These checks and balances permit each of the three governing branches to stop other branches from particular actions (Gitelson, Dudley, Dubnick, 2001, p.54-55). Significantly, preventing any branch of government’s power becoming too much that resultantly a tyranny of the majority occurs.
Effectiveness as Accountability
Accountability forms one principle of effective government, allowing citizens and legislatures to hold executive or governing representatives responsible for sub-standard or illegal actions (Cutler, 2004, p.19). In Presidential democracies, Presidents are elected directly by citizens on a separate ticket to legislative representatives. These elections may occur simultaneously on the same day, or separately (Pérez-Liñán, 2017, p.88) for example US mid-term elections. In the US Presidents are elected to serve as head of the state, government, and commander in chief (WhiteHouse.Gov, n.d.).
Presidential systems hold the executive government more accountable as the electorate therefore have a clearer, directly elected leadership figure, independent of their congressional representatives that they may express satisfaction or displeasure towards. Additionally, although US Presidents can be held to account by the legislative branches of government, it is very uncommon to do so. Impeachment processes can be invoked under Articles I and II of the US constitution. Article I; Section II of the constitution guarantees the US House of Representatives ‘…the sole power of impeachment’. Article II; Section IV further postulates that ‘The President, Vice President and all civic officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.’ (National Archives, 2017). Critically however, these are immensely serious crimes and thus make an impeachment process unlikely, demonstrating a Presidential systems inability to enforce Presidential accountability therefore, Presidential systems create ineffective governments. Presidential impeachment can only ensue with a majority in the US House of Representatives and a two-thirds supermajority in the House of Senate (Savage, 2017). Consequently, it could be inferred that Presidential systems provide less effective government as despite the executive’s accountability to the legislature, it is a far more theoretical than practical process. US impeachment practices have been invoked against eight separate Presidents.
President’s Trump, Obama, G. Bush, G.W. Bush, and Reagan all had impeachment resolutions fail to pass through Congress’ lower House of Representative Chambers. Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868 and William J. Clinton, in 1998, were both impeached by majority verdict in the House of Representatives, though they stayed on as President after acquittal by the Senate, completing their tenures in executive charge (CNN, 2017). President Nixon faced impeachment charges for abuses of presidential powers and obstructions of justice (Kutler, 1997, p.xiv), however he resigned from the Presidency prior to a full vote over his impeachment in the House of Representatives (Glass, 2017). The expected outcome was believed to have been a substantial margin of votes in favour of impeachment in the representatives, thus forcing a senate trial.
No President has ever been impeached by the Senate thus ending their presidency, therefore demonstrating a lack of practical accountability. If you cannot remove a President for all crimes, not just extreme ones it is hard to hold them accountable for a large majority of their potential actions.
In comparison, Parliamentary systems hold government executives to account differently. In order to win a Parliament’s control, over half the elected representatives must be willing to support a governments action. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as coalition agreements or majority government. There have been numerous minority governments in the UK after a failure by all parties to win an elected majority in the House of Commons, however, these are infrequent in the case of a hung parliament. At present the UK has a minority government, however there is a ‘Confidence and Supply Agreement…’ (Prime Minister’s Office, 2017) in place with the Democratic Unionist Party to tow the government line on key votes of confidence, such as finance bills. Therefore, holding the executive accountable as under parliamentary systems, confidence in the executive is necessitated to form and sustain a government.
The executive branches of a parliamentary government are derivative from the legislature at the choice of the elected Prime Minister (Carey, 2008, p.92), therefore they must be held accountable differently to Presidential government branches. In the UK’s Westminster parliament a motion of no confidence can be tabled by opposition MP’s or non-ministerial MP’s of the same party, these motions, if passed by a simple majority in the House of Commons, dissolve the current parliament, triggering a general election (Parliament UK, n.d. A and Hauss, 2006). Moreover, there are no specified reasons as to what no confidence motions cannot be tabled over, in comparison to the US Presidential system, whereby an executive President may only be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours (National Archives, 2017), thus the executive is overall more accountable throughout Parliamentary systems for greater substantiated reasons.
Ultimately, this displays more effective government in parliamentary systems by virtue of greater accountability. Another method of Prime Ministerial accountability in the UK is Prime Ministers Questions. Westminster Parliament congregates weekly on Wednesday’s at 12pm until 12.30pm. A list of questions are published on the day’s order of business, however speakers wishing to pose the same question are invited by the house’s speaker to ask another, the Prime Minister is thus theoretically unaware of the issues set to be scrutinised (Parliament UK, n.d. B). Effective governance can be measured through accountability, and Presidential systems can hold branches of government accountable, but in systems such as the US, these processes are impractical.
The extreme crimes a President must go through in order to be held accountable, such as treason, leads to scarce implementation. In comparison, Parliamentary systems, may introduce no confidence motions over an array of issues that lead to accountability by virtue of dissolving government. Furthermore, parliamentary scrutiny processes are superior. Subsequently affording parliamentary systems more effective governance.
Effectiveness as Governance
One value of an effective government is governance. To understand governance, it is imperative to first differentiate between itself and the term government. Government are institutions that actually govern, whereas governance is the entire process of building a government and coordinating institutions for law-making (Moran, 2011, p.3). If governance is therefore the coordinated process of passing laws, Presidential systems can be seen as ineffective at performing this function. In systems of presidencies, with a separation of powers, there can be a distinct lack of harmony causing inter-governmental discrepancies. Often these therefore lead to issues with governance (Sharma and Sharma, 2007, p.425).
Under a Presidential format, an executive government’s winning party does not automatically control both or either chambers of the legislature, because the President is elected in a separate contest. For example, In 2012 President Obama was re-elected as President of the US with 51% of the vote and a majority of 332 electoral college seats, when only 270 are required to win the presidency. The legislature was compromised of a majority Democratic Senate by a margin of 53 Democrats, 2 Independents and 45 Republicans, and the House of Representatives 201 Democrats compared to 234 Republicans (NBC News, 2018). However, after the conclusion of the 2014 mid-term elections, President Obama’s executive ceased to have Democrat party control in either congressional chamber. They were defeated in the Senate by 54 Republicans to 46 Democrats and the Democrats continued to be the minority party in the House of Representatives by a significant margin of 247 Republicans to 188 Democrats. This is significant as it impacts upon a President’s ability to pass legislation he was mandated by the electorate to pass, without complete control of congressional chambers by his party for support in his policies.
Controlling congress therefore makes the possibility of a President’s politically ideological bills passing more likely, as there are like-minded legislative representatives to help push bills into laws. As a result, ineffective governance is represented throughout presidential systems, as fortunes can contrast mid-way through the presidency, with the election of greater opposition, that become a majority in the legislative. In the US ‘When federal agencies and programmes lack appropriated funding, they must cease operations…’ (Kosar, 2004).
Most notably the US government has shut down on numerous occasions over inter-chamber legislative and legislature-executive differences. During President Ronald Reagan’s two presidential terms the government shut down eight times between 1981-1987. Each previous government shutdown lasted a different period of time and shared disagreements between the legislature and executive in common. An example of the Executive disagreeing with the legislature would be the 1981 shutdown between November 20th and November 23rd. The shutdown lasted three days over President Reagan’s disagreement with both Congressional chambers co-agreed spending bill (FoxNews 2018). There have also been examples of government shutdowns because the legislature has been controlled by two different parties, such as 1986. President Reagan was in agreement with his Republican party controlled Senate over an agreed welfare packet arrangement, however the Democratic party controlled House of Representatives refused to accept the agreement. Between October 16th and October 18th the government was therefore again shut down (FoxNews 2018). This is consequential because if government is shutdown they are not actively performing their duties, congressional chambers are closed, as are the Executive, until settlements are reached.
A government therefore cannot enact its mandated function of governance effectively, if common ground cannot be found to agree upon fundamental policies such as budgets for the upcoming year. In comparison, Parliamentary systems often remain unaffected by parliamentary disharmony, although governance can be effected by MP’s rebelling. For example, Theresa May losing a key parliamentary vote on whether MP’s should have a vote on the final bill to exit the European Union as a result of 12 Conservative MP’s rebelling and voting against their leadership government’s party line (Cooper, 2017). Parliamentary democracies necessitate that a government shall be formed from either the largest party elected to the legislative house or houses, in some cases through informal agreements with minority parties as part of a minority government, or party-coalitions.
With a majority or coalition majority in parliament you are therefore able to pass legislation without being blocked by opposition, enabling you to carry out your elective mandate and fulfil the will of the people more effectively. Therefore in comparison with Presidential systems, whereby government shutdowns occur, due to conflicting interests between an executive’s elected mandate and a legislature’s elected mandate, because they can be nominated on separate manifestos, parliamentary systems are more effective in their ability to govern.
Effectiveness as Representativeness
Lastly, representativeness is a minor barrier to effective governance. Representativeness can be defined as the individual members of legislatives, abilities or inabilities to represent their constituents and defend their welfares (Kreppel, 2017, p.121). Presidential cabinets do not provide legislative representation as they are not elected representatives, they are chosen by the President to serve as head of government departments. In the US, they are ratified by the Senate (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018, NCC Staff, 2017), and often they have never held legislative seats. Whereas without a separation of powers in Parliamentary systems, a parliament cannot reject cabinet appointments in countries such as the UK because they do not have to ratify them.
This infers better representativeness in the presidential format, as individual legislatures retain the right to vote no against a cabinet member if it is not in the interest of his people. Whereas in parliamentary systems, the choice remains entirely at the expense of the Prime Minister, demonstrating a lack of representativeness, as our individual elected members may become government ministers, because the executive is derivative of the legislature. Resultantly adding executive responsibilities in addition to their representative and legislative capabilities. Thus it could lead to representational failures, as MP’s could be forced to tow government lines when in fact constituents may disagree.
Representativeness can also lead to less accountability in the UK. If there are large majority governments in Parliamentary systems, with a significant mandate to execute the manifesto of the government, holding them to account is virtually impossible. For example in the United Kingdom, Tony Blair and the Labour party won 418 of 659 seats (UK Political Info, n.d.) and consequently became more difficult to defeat in parliamentary votes, relying upon mass Labour MP’s rebelling.
In conclusion, throughout this essay, there have been intrinsic links between accountability, governance and representativeness factors and effective government. By applying these factors to presidential and parliamentary systems, via US and UK case studies we can see that the same examples interlink.
The most important provisions for effective government are high accountability with strong governance. High accountability leads to stronger governance, because stronger scrutiny leads to better performance. In Parliamentary systems, the government is derivative of the legislative, providing an effective mandate, forcing them to perform better in fear of no confidence motions.
Accountability for actions, and governance is weaker in a presidential system with a separate powers because it becomes increasingly difficult to hold presidents accountable for their actions, and inter-governmental branches disagreeing are a barrier to effective governance.
Ultimately this essay believes that a governments’ ability to get from point A to B by governing and being held accountable for their actions are more important than increased representativeness.
Without the ability for effective governance, as demonstrated by the US government shutdowns, representativeness is a non-factor because policy cannot be passed. For this reason, Parliamentary systems, such as the UK, offer more effective government.
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