At the time this article was written Gregory
Mahler was Professor of Political science at the University of Vermont.
Aristotle long ago observed that man is a
"political animal." He could have added that man, by his very nature,
notes the political status of his neighbours and, very often, perceives their
lot as being superior to his own. The old saying "the grass is greener on
the other side of the fence" can be applied to politics and political
structures as well as to other, more material, dimensions of the contemporary
Legislators are not immune from the very
human tendency to see how others of their lot exist in their respective
settings, and, sometimes, to look longingly at these other settings. When
legislators do look around to see the conditions under which their peers
operate in other countries, they occasionally decide they prefer the
alternative legislative settings to their own.
Features which legislators admire or envy in
the settings of their colleagues include such things as: the characteristics of
political parties (their numbers, or degrees of party discipline), legislative
committee systems, staff and services available to help legislators in their tasks,
office facilities, libraries, and salaries. This essay will develop the
"grass is greener" theme in relation to a dimension of the
legislative world which is regularly a topic of conversation when legislators
from a number of different jurisdictions meet: the ability or inability of
legislators to check and control the executive.
The Decline of Parliament
The theme of the "decline of
parliament" has a long and well-studied history.1 It generally refers to
the gradual flow of true legislative power away from the legislative body in
the direction of the executive. The executive does the real law-making — by
actually drafting most legislation — and the legislature takes a more
"passive" role by simply approving executive proposals.
Legislators are very concerned about their
duties and powers and over the years have jealously guarded them when they have
appeared to be threatened. In Canada (and indeed most parliamentary democracies
in the world today), the majority of challenges to legislative power which develop
no longer come from the ceremonial executive (the Crown), but from the
political executive, the government of the day.
It can be argued that the ability to direct
and influence public policy, is a "zero sum game" (i.e. there is only
room for a limited amount of power and influence to be exercised in the
political world and a growth in the relative power of the political executive
must be at the expense of the power of the legislature). It follows, then, that
if the legislature is concerned about maintaining its powers, concerned about
protecting its powers from being diminished, it must be concerned about every
attempt by the political executive to expand its powers.
Others contend that real "legislative
power" cannot, and probably never did reside in the legislature. There was
no "Golden Age" of Parliament. The true legislative role of
parliament today is not (and in the past was not) to create legislation, but to
scrutinize and ratify legislation introduced by the Government of the day. Although
an occasional exception to this pattern of behaviour may exist (with private
members' bills, for example), the general rule is clear: the legislature today
does not actively initiate legislation as its primary raison d'être.
Although parliamentarians may not be major
initiators of legislation, studies have indicated a wide range of other
functions.2 Certainly one major role of the legislature is the
"over-sight" role, criticizing and checking the powers of the
executive. The ultimate extension of this power is the ability of the
legislature to terminate the term of office of the executive through a "no
confidence" vote. Another role of the legislature involves communication
and representation of constituency concerns. Yet another function involves the
debating function, articulating the concerns of the public of the day.
Professor James Mallory has indicated the
need to "be realistic about the rile of Parliament in the Westminster
system."3 He cites Bernard Crick's classic work, The Reform of
Parliament: "...the phrase `Parliamentary control, and talk about the
decline of parliamentary control,' should not mislead anyone into asking for a
situation in which governments can have their legislation changed or defeated,
or their life terminated... Control means influence, not direct power; advice,
not command; criticism, not obstruction; scrutiny, not initiation; and
publicity, not secrecy."4
The fact that parliament may not be
paramount in the creation and processing of legislation is no reason to condemn
all aspects of parliamentary institutions. Nor should parliamentarians be
convinced that legislative life is perfect in the presidential-congressional
system. In fact, some American legislators look to their parliamentary brethren
and sigh with envy at the attractiveness of certain aspects of parliamentary
Desirability of a Congressional Model for
Many Canadian parliamentarians and students
of parliament look upon presidential-congressional institutions of the United States
is sometimes seen as being greener on the other side of the border. The
concepts of fixed legislative terms, less party discipline, and a greater
general emphasis on the role and importance of individual legislators (which
implies more office space and staff for individual legislators, among other
things) are seen as standards to which Canadian legislators should aspire.
A perceived strength of the American
congressional system is that legislators do not automatically "rubber
stamp" approve executive proposals. They consider the president's
suggestions, but feel free to make substitutions or modifications to the
proposal, or even to reject it completely. Party discipline is relatively weak;
there are regularly Republican legislators opposing a Republican president (and
Democratic legislators supporting him), and vice versa. Against the need for
discipline congressmen argue that their first duty is to either (a) their
constituency, or (b) what is "right", rather than simply to party
leaders telling them how to behave in the legislature. For example, in 1976
Jimmy Carter was elected President with large majorities of Democrats in both
houses of Congress. One of Carter's major concerns was energy policy. He
introduced legislative proposals (that is, he had congressional supporters
introduce legislation, since the American president cannot introduce
legislation on his own) dealing with energy policy, calling his proposals
"the moral equivalent of war." In his speeches and public appearances
he did everything he could to muster support for "his " legislation.
Two years later when "his" legislation finally emerged from the
legislative process, it could hardly be recognized as the proposals submitted
in such emotional terms two years earlier.
The experience of President Carter was
certainly not unique. Any number of examples of such incidents of
legislative-executive non-co-operation can be cited in recent American
political history, ranging from President Wilson's unsuccessful efforts to get
the United States to join the League of Nations, through Ronald Reagan's
contemporary battles with Congress over the size of the federal budget. The
Carter experience was somewhat unusual by virtue of the fact that the same
political party controlled both the executive and legislative branches of
government, and co-operation still was not forthcoming. There have been many
more examples of non-co-operation when one party has controlled the White House
and another party has controlled one or both houses of Congress.
This lack of party discipline ostensibly
enables the individual legislators to be concerned about the special concerns
of their constituencies. This, they say, is more important than simply having
to follow the orders of the party whip in the legislature. It is not any more
unusual to find a Republican legislator from a farm state voting against a
specific agricultural proposal of President Reagan on the grounds that the
legislation in question is not good for his/her constituency, than to find
Democratic legislators from the south-western states who voted against
President Carter's water policy proposals on the grounds that the proposals
were not good for their constituencies.
Congressional legislators know that they
have fixed terms in office — the President is simply not able to bring about
early elections " and they know that as long as they can keep their
constituencies happy there is no need to be terribly concerned about opposing
the President, even if he is the leader of their party. It may be nice to have
the President on your side, but if you have a strong base of support "back
home" you can survive without his help.
Are there any benefits to the public
interest in the absence of party discipline? The major argument is that the
legislature will independently consider the executive's proposals, rather than
simply accepting the executive's ideas passively. This, it is claimed, allows
for a multiplicity of interest, concerns and perspectives to be represented in
the legislature, and ostensibly results in "better" legislation.
In summary, American legislative
institutions promote the role of the individual legislator. The fixed term
givers legislators the security necessary for the performance of the functions
they feel are important. The (relative) lack of party discipline enables
legislators to act on the issues about which they are concerned. In terms of
the various legislative functions mentioned above, congressmen appear to spend
a great deal of their time in what has been termed the legislative aspect of
the job: drafting legislation, debating, proposing amendments, and voting (on a
more or less independent basis).
While many parliamentarians are impressed by
the ability of individual American legislator to act on their own volition it
is ironic that many congressional legislators look longingly at the legislative
power relationships of their parliamentary brethren. The grass, apparently, is
greener on the other side of the border, too.
Desirability of a Parliamentary Model
The "decline of congressional
power" is as popular a topic of conversation in Washington as "the
decline of parliamentary power" in Ottawa or London. Over the last several
decades American legislators have sensed that a great deal of legislative power
has slipped from their collective grasp.5 Many have decried this tendency and
tried to stop, or reverse this flow of power away from the legislative branch
and toward the executive.
On of the major themes in the writings of
these congressional activists is an admiration for the parliamentary model's
(perceived) power over the executive. Many American legislators see the
president's veto power, combined with his fixed term in office, as a real flaw
in the "balance of powers" of the system, leading to an inexorable
increase in executive power at the expense of the legislature. The look at a
number of parliamentary structures which they see as promoting democratic
political behaviour and increased executive responsibility to the legislature,
including the ability to force the resignation of the executive through a
non-confidence vote. The regular "question period" format which
insures some degree of public executive accountability is also perceived as
being very attractive.
Critics of the congressional system do not
confine their criticism only to the growth of executive power. There are many
who feel there is too much freedom in the congressional arena. To paraphrase
the words of Bernard Crick cited earlier, advising has sometimes turned into
issuing commands; and criticism has sometimes turned into obstruction. This is
not to suggest that congressional legislators would support giving up their
ability to initiate legislation, to amend executive proposals, or to vote in a
manner which they (individually) deem proper. This does suggest, however, that
even congressional legislators see that independence is a two-sided coin: one
side involves individual legislative autonomy the incompatibility of complete
independence with a British style of "Responsible Government".
In 1948 Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis,
delivered an address at the nomination convention of the Democratic Party. In
his comments he appealed for a "more responsible" two party system in
the United States, a system with sufficient party discipline to have meaningful
party labels, and to allow party platforms to become public policy.6 Little
progress has been made over the last thirty-seven years in this regard. In the
abstract the concept of a meaningful two party system may be attractive;
American legislators have not been as attracted to the necessary corollary of
the concept: decreased legislative independence and increased party discipline.
While American Senators and Representatives
are very jealous of executive encroachments upon their powers, there is some
recognition that on occasion — usually depending upon individual legislators'
views about the desirability of specific pieces of legislation — executive
leadership, and perhaps party discipline, can serve a valuable function.
Congressional legislators are, at times which correspond to their policy
preferences, envious of parliamentary governments' abilities to carry their
programs into law because MPs elected under their party labels will act
consistent with party whips' directions. They would be loath to give up their
perceived high degrees of legislative freedom but many of them realize the cost
of this freedom in this era of pressing social problems and complex
legislation. Parliamentary style government is simply not possible without
A Democratic Congressman supporting
President Carter's energy policy proposals might have longed for an effective
three-line whip to help to pass the energy policies in question. An opponent of
those policy proposals would have argued, to the contrary, that the frustration
of the president's proposals was a good illustration of the wisdom of the
legislature tempering the error-ridden policy proposals of the president.
Similarly, many conservative Republican supporters of President Reagan have
condemned the ability of the Democratic House of Representatives to frustrate
his economic policies. Opponents of those policies have argued, again, that the
House of Representatives is doing an important job of representing public
opinion and is exercising a valuable and important check on the misguided
policies of the executive.
Some Concluding Observations
The parliamentary model has its strengths as
well as its weaknesses. The individual legislator in a parliamentary system
does not have as active a role in the actual legislative process as does his
American counterparts, but is not at all hard to imagine instances in which the
emphasis on individual autonomy in the congressional system can be
counterproductive because it delays much-needed legislative programs.
The problem, ultimately, is one of balance.
Is it possible to have a responsible party system in the context of
parliamentary democracy which can deliver on its promises to the public, and
also to have a high degree of individual legislative autonomy in the
It is hard to imagine how those two concepts
could coexist. The congressional and parliamentary models of legislative
behaviour have placed their respective emphasis on two different priorities.
The parliamentary model, with its responsible party system and its
corresponding party discipline in the legislature, emphasizes efficient policy
deliver, and the ability of an elected government to deliver on its promises.
The congressional model, with its lack of party discipline and its emphasis on
individual legislative autonomy, placed more emphasis on what can be called
"consensual politics": it may take much more time for executive
proposals to find their way into law, but (the argument goes) there is greater
likelihood that what does, ultimately, emerge as law will be acceptable to a
greater number of people than if government proposals were
"automatically" approved by a pre-existing majority in the
legislature acting "under the whip".
We cannot say that one type of legislature
is "more effective" than the other. Each maximizes effectiveness in
different aspects of the legislative function. Legislators in the congressional
system, because of their greater legislative autonomy and weaker party
discipline, are more effective at actually legislating than they are at exercising
ultimate control over the executive. Legislators in the parliamentary system,
although they may play more of a "ratifying" role in regard to
legislation, do get legislation passed promptly; they also have an ultimate
power over the life of the government of the day.
The appropriateness of both models must also
be evaluated in light of the different history, political culture and
objectives of the societies in which they operate. Perhaps the grass is just as
green on both sides of the fence.
1. There is substantial literature devoted
to the general topic of "the decline of legislatures." Among the many
source which could be referred to in this area would be included the work of
Gerhard Loewenberg. Modern Parliaments: Change or Decline? Chicago:
Atherton. 1971; Gerhard Loewenberg and Samuel Patterson, Comparing
Legislatures, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979; or Samuel Patterson and John Wahlke,
eds., Comparative Legislative Behavior: Frontiers of Research, New York:
John Wiley, 1972.
2. A very common topic in studies of
legislative behaviour has to do with the various functions legislatures may be
said to perform for the societies of which they are a part. For a discussion of
the many functions attributed to legislatures in political science literature,
see Gregory Mahler, Comparative Politics: An Institutional and
Cross-National Approach (Cambridge, Ma.: Schenkman, 1983, pp.56-61).
3. J.R. Mallory, "Can Parliament
Control the Regulatory Process?" Canadian Parliamentary Review,
Vol. 6 (no. 3, 1983) p. 6.
4. Bernard Crick, The Reform of
Parliament, London, 1968, p. 80.
5. One very well written discussion of the
decline of American congressional power in relation to the power of the
president can be found in Ronald Moe, ed., Congress and the President, Pacific
Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Publishing Co., 1971.
6. Subsequently a special report was
published by the Committee on Political Parties of the American Political
Science Association dealing with this problem. See "Toward a More
Responsible Two-Party System." American Political Science Review
Vol. 44 (no. 3, 1950), special supplement.