“As at present constituted, the federal government [of the United States of America] lacks strength because its powers are divided, lacks promptness because its authorities are multiplied, lacks wieldiness because its processes are roundabout, lacks efficiency because its responsibility is indistinct and its action is without competent direction.” Although this statement, by Woodrow Wilson, was made in the 1920’s, it can still be argued today on account of the fact that not much has changed in the way the United States government operates. Still existing in the American way of governing is the theory of the separation of powers, which was evolved within the United States. The theory assumes three well-defined and more or less independent “organs” of government. Each of these organs is regarded as within its sphere to be beyond the control of the other “organs” . The United States’ government is a presidential system (or congressional system) and is considerably unlike the parliamentary system. While both the American presidential system and the parliamentary system have both strengths and weaknesses, on balance, the parliamentary system is the superior system.
Key differences between the two systems include the extent to which the powers of government are separated functionally between branches of government, how each system defines the conditions for removing the executive and dissolving the government, and the influence that the governing system has on the structures developed by the parties in the legislature.
In a presidential system, the President (who is the chief executive as well as the symbolic head of government) is chosen by a separate election from that of the legislature. The President then appoints his or her cabinet of ministers (or “secretaries” in U.S. parlance). These ministers are usually not simultaneously members of the legislature, although their appointment may require the advice and consent of the legislative branch. Because the senior officials of the executive branch are separately elected of appointed, the presidential political system is characterized by a separation of powers, wherein the executive and legislative branches are independent of one another. Presidents have greater control over their cabinet appointees who serve at the President’s pleasure, and who are usually selected for reasons other than the extent of their congressional support (as in parliamentary systems). The U.S. represents the strongest form of presidentialism, in the sense that the powers of the executive and legislative branches are separate, and legislatures (national and state) often have significant powers.
The parliamentary system, unlike the American presidential system, is recognizable by a fusion of powers between the legislative and executive branches. The Prime Minister, who is the chief executive, may be elected to the legislature in the same way that all other members are elected. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that wins the majority of votes to the legislature-either de facto, or in some cases through an election held by the legislature. The Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. However, unlike in the presidential system, these members are typically themselves legislature members from the ruling party or coalition. Thus, in a parliamentary system, the constituency of the executive and legislature are the same. If the ruling party is voted out of legislature, the executive also changes. Continued cooperation between the executive and legislature is required for the government in a parliamentary system to survive and to be effective in carrying out its programs. The United Kingdom represents the strongest form of parliamentarism.
In a presidential system, in line with the notion of a separation of powers, presidents and members of the legislature are separately elected for a given length of time. Presidents have no authority to remove members of the legislature. Premature removal of either legislative members or the President can only be initiated by a vote in the lower legislative chamber and under particular conditions. Thus, under normal circumstances, even if the political party that the President represents becomes a minority in either or both houses of the legislature, the President will remain in his position for the full term for which he was elected.
The Prime Minister, in a parliamentary system, can be removed from office in two ways. The first is through a “no-confidence” motion, which calls for a vote in the legislature to demonstrate that the legislature no longer has confidence in the Prime Minister and his cabinet of Ministers. If the vote passes by a majority, the Executive, including the Prime Minister, is forced to step down. Since the Prime Minister and his cabinet of ministers are members of the legislature, this brings about new legislative elections. The term of the Prime Minister, therefore, is generally linked to that of the rest of the legislature. However, the Prime Minister can also be removed by his/her own party members, in a setting outside of the legislature. For example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was removed by party vote and replaced by John Major during the Conservative Party caucus in 1990. Such a removal, whereby the party decides to change its leader, does not force legislative elections.
In presidential systems, party discipline, referring to the practice of legislators voting with their parties, is typically weaker than in parliamentary systems. Parties in presidential systems tend to be less structured than parties in parliamentary systems. Failure to vote with one’s party does not threaten to bring the government down. Therefore, members of the legislature are freer to identify with regional, ethnic, economic or other divisions when considering policy issues. This tendency is likely strengthened by the first-past-the-post electoral system that the American presidential system also employs. Because they are usually directly elected and identifiable with particular districts or regions, many members see a duty to their constituents (in a district or state) as the first priority, with allegiance to a party and its platform as secondary. While the legislators are under some pressure to vote with their party, particularly on important votes, the consequences of not doing so are not as serious to the individual legislator and to the system. Because legislatures and executives are elected separately and often for different terms, it is not uncommon for them to be controlled by different parties.
In parliament systems, party discipline is typically stronger because the “executive” government requires majority party cohesiveness for its own survival. In fact, it has been said that the disciplined parties are “the independent variable that explains virtually every aspect of Parliament”. Parties in presidential systems tend to be less structured than parties in parliamentary systems. Parties that are highly structured and tend toward unified action, bloc voting and distinct party platforms characterize parliamentary systems in developed countries. This party discipline is required in parliamentary systems because deviation from the party line could result in bringing down the government. Parliamentary systems require that the “executive” and legislative members come to agreement upon issues, lest it force the dissolution of the government. In addition, majority parties in parliamentary systems are perceived by voters to have a mandate to run the country. Therefore, each party may develop a system of punishments and rewards. Individual members of the legislature who deviate from a party vote may be punished by exclusion from their party within parliament or may not be nominated by the party in the subsequent election. Similarly, opposition parties theoretically want to maximize their power in a system dominated by the majority by voting as a block and squelching internal dissent. Opposition party discipline is more likely if the party or parties perceive that they can eventually gain the majority. Consequently, for both majority and minority parties in parliament, important policy decisions are made within party structures, such as party caucuses, rather than within the legislature itself. Obviously it is not possible for the legislature and executive to be controlled by different parties in a parliamentary system.
The presidential system and the parliamentary system each possess unique strengths and weaknesses. The first key difference mentioned from before between the two systems of government was the extent to which the powers of government are separated functionally between branches of government. In the presidential system, political and administrative powers are divided between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. This division of powers causes a lack of direct connection between the legislative and executive departments of the federal government. In this system of government, the President and his cabinet officers cannot visit and participate in the proceedings of Congress and can only deal with the legislative body in an indirect way by appearing before committees, by sending communications or by trying to influence Congress through the press or by patronage and other roundabout methods. This lack of direct connection between the branches creates a lack of unity in action and execution rendering the American processes of government invisible and making the lines of responsibility indirect and covert. In a parliamentary system, Parliament is sovereign and executive authority (exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is derived from the legislature. This is beneficial because it means there is a direct connection between the legislative and executive departments.
The second key difference mentioned from before was how each system defines the conditions for removing the executive and dissolving the government. In the presidential system, the President remains in his position for the full term for which he was elected. This causes the President and his cabinet to not feel responsible to the legislature (like the Prime Minister and his cabinet feel in a parliamentary system) because the confidence of the legislature would not be critical in keeping their positions. This might then cause the President in the presidential system to act compulsively and without concern of the legislature’s wishes. The Prime Minister and his cabinet in the parliamentary system do feel responsible to the legislature because the “vote of confidence” of the legislature is crucial for them to hold their positions. On the other hand, a positive aspect of the presidential system is that the country’s government has a relatively slim chance of getting dissolved without warning, therefore giving the citizens of the country a sense of reliability.
The third key difference mentioned from before was the influence that the governing system has on the structures developed by the parties in the legislature. A governing system is able to influence these structures by the practice of party discipline and this practice is typically stronger in parliamentary systems than in presidential systems. There are advantages for both having weak party discipline and having strong party discipline. The advantages of the presidential system with respect to party discipline include the evidence that relations between individual members and constituents tend to be stronger and the President and individual members are directly accountable to the voters. The advantages of the parliamentary system with respect to party discipline include the observations that parties and stable party coalitions within parliament can be held accountable to the public based on their promotion of the party platform, the Prime Minister can be made accountable to his/her party and the parliament as a whole by a vote of no confidence at any time, and highly organized parties can act as a link between party leaders and constituents at local levels. One disadvantage of the parliamentary system with respect to party discipline that can be argued, however, is that in deeply divided societies, the parliamentary system can lead to one party controlling the state and locking other ethnic or regional groups out of power.
While it has been shown that both the presidential and the parliamentary systems have both strengths and weaknesses, the political thinkers in any country are likely to be conscious of the defects of their peculiar institutions and to view with admiration the practices of foreign governments with which they are much less familiar with. What must be realized is there is no government that offers a “magic bullet” that can assuredly solve all of the modern day problems a country faces. What must be done if a country wishes to have significantly higher prospects of success is to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of certain political systems to discover the superior system. The weaknesses of the presidential system, including the lack of direct connection between the branches of government, which creates a lack of unity in action, and execution, seem paramount when compared to the advantages of the presidential system. Contrary to this, is the parliamentary system where the weaknesses seem insubstantial compared to the advantages, which include the direct connection between the legislative and executive departments and the fusion of powers between them.
In summary, although the American presidential system and the parliamentary system both have their strengths and weaknesses, on balance, the parliamentary system is the superior system. The main argument for this is that the division of powers between branches in the presidential government result in obvious weaknesses and incongruities.
Going back to the metaphor of the “organs” representing the different branches in the American presidential system, some questions worth considering are raised: How can it be said that three well-defined and more or less independent “organs” each beyond the control of the other is productive? Isn’t it the correlative functions of the different organs what makes the humans body the productive respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular system that it is?
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