“The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government,” said President Obama in his live address on the debt ceiling.
The recent impasse between the White House and Congress over the controversy of raising the debt ceiling highlights the fundamental flaw of the Presidential-Congressional system of government: it is an inherently irresponsible form of government. By “irresponsible”, I mean in contrast to Westminster parliamentarism, which operates on the principle of responsible government: the government derives its authority to govern from the House of Commons. The political executive is therefore responsible before the House of Commons and can only govern when it commands its confidence. Canada and the former crown colonies of British North America have benefited from this system of government since 1848, before which the colonial governors could ignore the elected houses. In that respect, responsible government is both self-government and representative government.
The former 13 Colonies in America broke away from the British Empire before Westminster had progressed toward a state of responsible government; under George III, the relationship between the monarch and the political executive and the House had not yet developed into its modern form. The Constitution of 1787 therefore had to institute an entirely new system of government, both republican and federal. The framers drew upon the theories of French political philosopher Montesquieu in order to flesh out this concept of the division of powers: the political executive (the presidency), the legislature (Congress), and the courts became co-equal branches of government that would check and balance one another in order to prevent a dangerous concentration of power that threatened liberty. This is at once the most sublime strength and greatest weakness of the American system. The President of the United States is both the head of state and the head of government, but because of the division of powers, his election takes place separately from those of the House of Representatives and the Senate. He is thus not responsible before the House of Representatives and does not derive his authority to govern from Congress, but from the political sovereign in the United States, “we the people.” Congress derives its authority separately from the people as well. The President individually and Congress collectively can therefore both reasonably claim to represent the American people, so these two bodies can in turn enter into protracted disputes for theoretically as long as two years until the election of the next Congress.
If the President were responsible before Congress, he would have to present himself for the equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions periodically in order to explain his policies to the people’s representatives. I for one can’t imagine President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama answering questions before Congress! Those who disagree with this post will likely point out that the President fields questions from the media – but he is not constitutionally obligated to do so as our Commonwealth prime ministers are. And in any case, questions posed from unelected, self-aggrandizing journalists do not compare to the constitutional obligation to address a sovereign legislature of the people’s representatives.
In contrast, a Westminster parliamentary system could never sustain such conflict precisely because the government derives its authority from the sovereign House. A controversial issue like the raising of the debt ceiling would result in only two possible outcomes, both of which would happen far more quickly than in the American system: either the government would succeed in passing its legislation through the House, or the House would refused to accept the government’s legislation and withdraw its confidence. Depending on the composition of the House, the latter would result either in a new coalition government or a dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. (I would always prefer the latter). In any case, the House would resolve the deadlock definitively.
Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution in 1867, criticized the inherent inefficacy of the American form of government and summed up its irresponsible structure:“The executive is crippled by not getting the laws it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of which others (and not itself) will suffer the effects.” (Page 51)
The American form of government is irresponsible and encourages irresponsibility because it blurs the lines of accountability and robs the electorate of a clear choice and the ability to lay blame on one party when necessary. Where does the buck stop, as it were? There are essentially two bucks: one for the White House and another for the Congress. Parliamentary governments are more apt to take tough decisions, and the electorate can easily hold them to account for those decisions. In short, President Obama correctly stated that Americans didn’t vote for dysfunctional government – their Constitution entrenched dysfunctional and irresponsible government long ago.
- The Westminster Origins of the United States Congress
- 1774: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of Responsible Government and the Commonwealth Realms
- Parliamentary Privilege in the United States Congress
- Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism: The American Presidency
- Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism in The West Wing
- Fareed Zakaria Is Right About Parliamentarism’s Efficiency But Wrong On How It Works
- George III and the Loss of the American Colonies
- Crowned Maces in South Carolina and Virginia