Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism: The American Presidency

The Government of the United States of America just averted another shutdown because of failure to pass supply, or appropriations in the American lexicon. I established in earlier posts that the American form of presidential-congressional government is inherently irresponsible (in contrast to the responsible government of Westminster parliaments) because of its separation of powers. The framers of the Constitution of 1787 saw the strict separation of the executive and the legislature and the entrenchment of checks and balances as the most effective method of reining in abuse of executive powers and securing civil liberty. Article I, Section 6, Paragraph 2 declares that “no Person holding any Office under the United States shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.” The American colonies broke away from the First British Empire before the system of responsible government had developed, so the Framers based on the American Republic upon an interpretation of Westminster parliamentarism as it existed from 1660 to 1760, from the Restoration to the coronation of George III. In 1787, the separation of powers probably did offer the best protection against abuse of executive powers. The Framers like Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin dealt principally with the significant question of how to turn a hereditary monarch into an elected president, while ensuring that the presidency could not usurp the Congress.

The Framers probably examined these historical instances. In 1688, James II fled Great Britain, and Parliament deemed him to have abdicated; Parliament then invited William of Orange and Mary Stuart to take the throne. The selection of a monarch by Parliament fundamentally rejected the doctrine of the divine right of kings and monarchical succession. In 1700, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which again altered the line of succession in order to keep Catholics from ascending to the Throne out of the fear of Catholic Continental power struggles that could subjugate Great Britain. George I of Hanover became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1714 as per the terms of the Act. Parliament had asserted its power by choosing two monarchs under the terms of the Constitutional Settlement of 1688. The American Framers no doubt took stock of these experiences and thus devised the original electoral college and the indirect election of the American presidency in order to limit its executive power. By convention, the American presidency now rests on a popular mandate, but as the election of 2000 showed so clearly, the legal determination of the presidency depends not on winning the popular vote, but winning the electoral college via the States. They devised the electoral college in order that the States and the House of Representatives appoint a weak and limited Presidency, the logical extension of parliamentary control over succession as applied in a Republic. I use this language “by convention” deliberately, because many observers of both American and Commonwealth politics mistakenly believe that the American system rests entirely on an entrenched written constitution.

The gradual expansion of the franchise in the 19th century with Jacksonian democracy and the 15th amendment and in the 20th with women’s suffrage, and the direct election of Senators, rendered the the greatest strength of the American system its Achilles’ Heal. These developments threatened the balance of powers and infinitely complicated the separation of powers. Where once only the House of Representatives could reasonably claim to represent the people through a popular mandate, the Senate, once the states’ house, now claimed the same. The president could in turn claim that the presidency represents the true voice of the people, being the only office for which Americans from across the entire country vote.  The broadening of the franchise in the United States, and the resultant convention of a popular mandate of the American presidency, also broadened the powers and influence of that office to an extent that the Framers never conceived. Where American presidentialism separates the executive from the legislature and forbids cabinet secretaries from holding seats in Congress, modern Westminster parliamentarism makes the executive responsible for the Crown’s actions and directly responsible to the legislature. Responsible government more efficiently represents and channels popular opinion, since the Crown has never presumed to represent it, and because the voters know that the decisions of government come from cabinet alone. This clarity of accountability does not apply to the American separation of powers, particularly not in the context of a powerful presidency that challenges the primacy of Congress.

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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.
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8 Responses to Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism: The American Presidency

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  6. Pingback: “Irresponsible Government” and the American System | Parliamentum, by James W.J. Bowden

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