“Irresponsible Government” and the American System

“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 Dysfunctional Congress

 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.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Parliamentarism v Presidentialism, Responsible Government. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to “Irresponsible Government” and the American System

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  13. Sarah says:

    I still think there is some appeal in being able to split your vote into who you want as your local representative and who you want as the leader of your country (either as head of state or head of government). The skill sets and traits to be effective at the positions are not necessarily the same.


    • James Bowden says:

      A Westminster system could accommodate this idea if MPs fulfilled their duties correctly and if whipped votes were limited to matters of confidence. However, I don’t believe in the inherent appeal of splitting one’s vote relative to the local representative and the head of state or government — such a system can only work in the presidential form of government.


  14. Sarah says:

    Nick, who is currently writing/editing that Forsey book (given that he died in 1991, I’m pretty sure someone else has taken it over for the newer editions)?


  15. Nick says:

    You agree with Forsey again, even is you didn’t know it!
    Forsey said (“How Canadians Govern Themselves”, 6th Edition, 2005, p. 28):
    “In the United States, President and Congress can be locked in fruitless combat for years on end. In Canada, the Government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds for more than a few weeks at a time. If they differ on any matter of importance, then, promptly, there is either a new government or a new House of Commons.”


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