At the time this article was published Steve
Charnovitz was a Foreign Affairs Fellow in the Congressional Fellowship Program
sponsored by the American Political Science Association.
There is a serious flaw in the system of
government followed in the United States. Whenever the congress and the
president disagree the rule rather than the exception these days the result
often is that important decisions are delayed and meaningless compromises made.
By settling for decisions based on the lowest common denominator, this system
of divided government keeps perennial policy problems perennial.
Consider the large amount of time and energy
the president must devote to haggling with congress. To some extent. today's
disputes stem from the fact that different parties control the house and
senate. But the disputes go deeper than that. They are rooted in the view that
every congressman is an independent actor with no need to follow the dictates
of the president or the dicta of his party. Even under a president whose party
controls both houses of congress, the government often seems paralyzed.
Governmental deadlock also occurs at the
state level. For example, in mid1983, the Pennsylvania and California state
governments temporarily ran out of money as a result of a political stand-off
over their annual budget. In both cases, these states had Republican governors
who could not come to terms with Democratically controlled houses of the state
Although there are many causes for the stalemate
at the federal level (for example, complex issues and fractious interest
groups), the chief cause may be a deficiency in our political institutions. Put
simply, the president does not have the clout he needs to discipline congress
into supporting his programs. True, the president can veto. But this veto power
cannot force outcomes and. if used too often, would throw the government into
The virtue of the present division of power
is that the president must enlist the support of an independent congress in
order to accomplish his legislative program or get his budget approved. This
procedure protects the public against laws that are hastily considered or that
do not enjoy wide support.
But the other side of this arrangement is
that it stalls "good" as well as "bad" laws. A newly
elected president with a mandate for change soon finds he must laboriously
broker each initiative with numerous congressional committees. While the
hallmark of American government is independent executive, legislative and
judicial branches, this separation of power can sometimes lead to a power
vacuum. Is there a better way? Can we increase the presidents leverage to
achieve his goals without making the presidency dangerously powerful?
For many years, political sages have
expressed growing doubts about America's governability. One keen analyst. Lloyd
Cutler, Counsel to President Carter, took a brave first step in suggesting some
remedies. In an article in Foreign Affairs. Cutler raised the possibility of
grafting parliamentary provisions on to the United States constitution. Some
specifics he discussed include having Presidential and Congressional candidates
run together as a team, empowering the President to call for new congressional
elections and allowing congressmen to serve as cabinet members.1
The American Founding Fathers specifically
rejected the British parliamentary system as a model. Yet it should give us
pause to reflect that most of the other democratic governments of the world,
including our neighbour to the North, have parliamentary institutions. A
parliamentary system for the United States could reduce the occurrence of
presidential-congressional stalemate, the appointment of cabinet ministers who
take months to learn their jobs, and the hiatus that accompanies biennial
election periods. A parliamentary system would make the government more
accountable by making the government more workable.
Despite these potential advantages,
incorporating parliamentary institutions into the federal government would
probably be politically impossible. Even if done incrementally, there would be
a predictable broad-based opposition to going from a familiar system that
sometimes works to an unfamiliar system that might not work. Fortunately there
may be a way out of this dilemma, a way to test parliamentary forms on American
soil without taking national risks.
In a famous Supreme Court dissent in 1932,
Justice Louis D. Brandeis remarked 1t is one of the happy incidents of the
federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose,
serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without
risk to the rest of the country."2 While it is hard to imagine the federal
government attempting a parliamentary conversion, one can imagine a reform-minded
state trying it.
Such a state could amend its constitution to
adopt one or more of the following procedures: (1) the legislature selects the
governor from among its members, (2) the governor appoints his cabinet at least
partly from the legislature, (3) the candidates for governor and legislature
run together as teams, or (4) new elections are held if the governor loses a
major vote in the legislature.
What would such an experiment tell us? After
all, the states are very different from the federal government in their size
and scope of responsibility It is this very difference in responsibility that
makes such an experiment plausible, At the very least, I believe one would get
some evidence on the following three questions. First, does reducing the
independence of the governor and the legislature facilitate agreements between
them? Second. does making the legislative process flow easier lead to fewer
laws that must soon be amended? Third, what are the difficulties in transition
from the present system to a parliamentary one? These lessons would help
develop a public opinion on the value of an American parliamentary system.
Checks and balances are a virtue but in
excess they can lead to political anomie. A parliamentary system may or may not
improve the functioning of government. Still, the method seems worth trying
here. Which courageous state will lead the way?
1. Lloyd N. Cutler, "To Form A
Government, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1980.
2. New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285
U.S. 262, 311 (1932).