At the time this article was
written James Simeon taught political science at York University.
Canada has a parliamentary system
of government but its present constitution drew heavily on the American federal
experience. Canadians continue to judge their institutions in comparison to
those of their southern neighbour. When American and Canadian elections take
place within a few months of each other, as is likely the case this year, it is
particularly tempting to reflect upon similarities and differences in our two
In view of recent developments in
our parliamentary system of government and in the U.S. congressional system it
seems opportune to reflect upon current changes and evolutionary trends in the
two systems of government. As always, Canada cannot help but be influenced by
what happens in the United States.
The pre-election "hype"
in Canada and the U.S. primaries culminating in the national conventions to
select the Democratic and Republican parties' nominees for president reflect
important contrasts in our two systems of government. Nevertheless, political
outcomes in the United States have, inevitably, an impact on Canada.
Historically, for example, whenever a Conservative government has been elected
in Canada a Republican president has held office. Liberal governments in Canada
have coincided with Democrats in the White House. Although Liberals have won
majorities with Republicans in office the opposite has never happened. The
observation exemplifies the close yet complex political interrelationship that
exists between Canada and the United States. As noted, American political and
constitutional changes and parliamentary reforms in Canada have reflected this
fundamental aspect of our polity.
Constitutional and parliamentary
reform were not the dominant issues during the 1984 election campaign but they
were discussed to some extent, particularly by the Conservative party. The
first item in the Throne Speech following the elction was a proposal to create
a Special Committee on Reform of the House.
Canadian members of Parliament,
particularly backbenchers, have long envied the independence of American
legislators whose control of bills is seen by some as a model for the reform of
Parliament. Congressional committees are totally independent of the executive
and have real power to control the legislative process. The reforms proposed by
the Special Committee substantially strengthened the role of House of Commons
standing committees while also establishing legislative committees to review draft
bills and conduct investigations on the subject matter of bills. Legislative
committees can retain experts, professional and technical support staff as
required but cease to exist after tabling their report on a bill. Standing
committees can hire their own staff and have greater autonomy over their own
budgets. The reforms emulate Congressional committees in these respects.
The report even proposed relaxing
the notion of "confidence" to give private members a more independent
legislative function. It proposed limited American-style legislative control
over appointments by Order-in-Council with committees inviting appointees to
appear and answer questions. This reform has not been used to the extent some
might have expected.
The Conservatives also promised to
bring Quebec into the constitutional fold and in 1987 the Prime Minister and
the ten provincial premiers agreed to constitutional reforms known as the Meech
Lake Accord. Senate reform is part of the Accord. Many have called for Senate
reform and one of the most vociferous lobbies is the Triple "E"
pressure group which is demanding an elected, effective Senate with equal
representation from all provinces. Here again, the U.S. Senate provides the
practical working example of how an elected Senate could play a more important
role in representing regional interests through a more democratic process.
The Canada-United States Free Trade
Agreement signed in January 1988, does notenvisage any specific changes in the
political institutions of either country but many argue that closer economic
ties will lead inevitably to closer political ones. For instance, the Agreement
establishes a binational dispute settlement mechanism, the Canada-United States
Trade Commission, and procedures to ensure the proper enforcement of the
provisions of the Agreement and to resolve any trade differences between the
two countries. The Agreement commits the Canadian and American governments to
"harmonize" their trade laws to facilitate the smooth and effective
operation of the Agreement and exchange of goods and services. If the Free
Trade Agreement comes into effect legislators on both sides of the border will
have to become more cognizant of the interpretative effects of the new
binational institutional machinery on their laws.
Recent Canadian Supreme Court
decisions which rely upon the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms also show the
American influence. Under the British Common Law tradition fundamental rights
and freedoms are protected by the courts but do not take precedence over laws
passed by Parliament which is supreme. The American preference of entrenching
rights in the constitution thereby limiting governments has again held sway,
although there are some important differences in the two declarations of rights
and in the way the two courts are appointed.
Are we headed for an American style
government with strong Congressional style committees, an elected Senate with
equal representation from the provinces, weak party discipline and fewer votes
of confidence, greater autonomy and independence for private members with
consequently more influence on public policy? In short, will our Parliament in
the future resemble the U.S. Congress more than the British Parliament at
These developments in our system of
government have not gone unnoticed. However, those who deplore this trend and
want to preserve the purity of our parliamentary system will have to offer
other credible alternatives to enhance the role of backbenchers in the House,
to revitalize the Senate, and other means to further protect the rights of the
individual in society. Otherwise, the inexorable trend in the evolution of our
parliamentary system appears to be toward a U.S.-style congressional system.
Americans, as frequently noted,
revere their Constitution and institutions of government and usually do not
seriously contemplate fundamental reforms. However, there are reasons for
thinking Americans may be in the mood to take a close look at their
constitution and perhaps introduce some major reforms to their system of
Last year's bicentennial
celebrations on the U.S. Constitution focused considerable attention on the
shortcomings of the political system in the United States and possible reforms.
For example, organizations and groups were established to review the U.S.
Constitution and the operation of the American political system and make
recommendations for reforms. One of the best of these efforts has been by the
Committee on the Constitutional System whose book edited by Donald L. Robinson,
Reforming American Government, has contributions from some of the leading
scientists in the United States.
The Iran-Contra affair not only
rocked the Reagan Administration but raised serious questions about the
American political system once again. Like Watergate and the secret bombing of
Cambodia during the Vietnam War it was another instance of a covert operation
directed by individuals in the Executive Branch in direct violation of the laws
of Congress. Ironically, the Iran-Contra affair became public, and the Congressional
hearings investigating the principals involved in the affair were televised
live, during the height of bicentennial celebrations.
Critics of the American political
system also point to the decline of the political party as having widened the gap
between initiation and implementation in government. Administrations find it
increasingly difficult to get their legislative program through Congrss because
the President often leads one political party while Congress is controlled by
another. Professor James MacGregor Burns, among others, has argued for
coterminous elections for the Senate, House of Representatives and President.
Others have called for reforms that would allow cabinet members to sit in the
legislature or Woodrow Wilson's favourite reform to allow senior legislators to
serve in cabinet. The McGovern - Fraser electoral reforms of 1972 have
apparently exacerbated this problem of declining party. For instance,
seventy-five percent of the delegates attending party leadership conventions must
be elected through the primary process. Leadership conventions as a
consequence, have become little more than coronations of the Party's nominee
for the Presidency. The traditional backroom bargaining and deal making by
party leaders has virtually been eliminated. Once a candidate wins the
Presidency there is no party coalition to sustain his administration over his
or her four-year term. Presidential candidates rely less and less on party
organization to win office and more and more on their own loyal following and
personal staff as well as television and radio to reach the voters.
The Political Action Committees
(PACs), not political parties, have become the principal source of financing
for presidential candidates. Campaign financing for Congress also has become a
major concern in recent years. Candidates are spending up to $3 million to win
a seat in the House of Representatives and three times as much to win a Senate
seat. There are no effective limitations on campaign expenditures in the United
States. This has led to accusations that Congress is a millionaires' club.
Congressmen who only have a two-year term must be constantly raising campaign
funds for their re-election. Consequently, many knowledgeable observers are now
calling for a ceiling on campaign expenditures. Moreover, reforms that limit
campaign contributions only to political parties have also been made.
Another cause for concern is th
status of the White House itself. The Reorganization Act of 1939 which marks
the emergence of the modern White House Office was initially seen as essential
for a President who was faced with a burgeoning bureaucracy. Few today will
deny that the White House Office is now a powerful bureaucracy in its own
right. Can a President, regardless how diligent and able, control his own staff
who are undoubtedly essential for the effective functioning of his or her own
office? The White House Office, staffed primarily by partisan political
appointees, owe their political loyalty to the President and some would say the
more authority the President assumes the more arrogant and disdainful the
senior White House staff become.
Authors writing on the U.S.
Presidency have referred to this situation as The Imperial Presidency, The
Impossible Presidency or The Twilight of the Presidency. This suggests a clear
bifurcation in how the office is perceived by Americans. While increasing in
"power" the office of President seems to be more susceptible to the
"evils of power".
Americans seem ambivalent on how
much power the President has gained vis-Ó-vis the other two branches of
government. Senator Daniel Moynihan has argued that for every power gained by
the President a commensurate power to obstruct is sought by Congress. For every
power the Presidency has gained Congress has countered. For instance, with the
rise of the Office of the Management of the Budget (OMB) in the Executive
Office of the President the Congress Budget Office (C.B.0.) has emerged with
its own bureaucracy to assist in scrutinizing the budgetary submissions from the
All of this is perhaps
characteristic of the fundamental attributes of the U.S. political system: one
that is predicated on fragmented authority, shared power and creative tension.
As the distinguished constitutional historian Edward Corwin noted the U.S.
Constitution is an "invitation to struggle" between the executive and
legislative brnches of government.
The United States is unlikely to
ever the fundamental principles of "separation of power" and
"checks and balance" on which its system of government is based. Nor
would Canadians consciously opt for some of the problems inherent in this type
of government and politics.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable,
from a Canadian perspective, how many of the reform proposals advanced by
thoughtful critics of the U.S. political system resemble or, in fact, clearly
emulate the parliamentary conventions and principles of government. And while
some Americans look to the parliamentary model to refine their system of
government Canadians continue to be seduced by certain features of the American
Congressional system. Does this suggest a converging path for both political
systems? There appears to be a great deal of common ground and the two
countries seem to be moving closer together in many areas.
Few Americans have an appreciation
or understanding of the inherent drawbacks or difficulties ofthe parliamentary
system itself. Likewise, most Canadians who advocate adopting Congressional
reforms do not acknowledge or concern themselves with the problems inherent in
the U.S. Congressional system. The tendency is to idealize the implicit or
explicit model one is advocating without admitting possible weaknesses or
negative unforeseen consequences. Frustrated M.P.s might see the U.S.
Congressional system as the legislators' nirvana while executive branch
officials in the U.S. might see the Prime Minister with majority control of
Parliament as the answer to efficient and effective government. Obviously, both
views ignore the reality that no system is perfect or that no reforms should be
implemented without weighing the negative side effects or consequences.
As national elections are held in
Canada and the United States, Canadians and Americans would do well to reflect
upon the current state of their political systems and how they might be
improved. With the aforementioned caveats in mind e should not shirk from
drawing upon the best features of each others' method of governance.