Sam recently posted about why America needs a parliament. It’s an interesting thought experiment and certainly something I’ve pondered a lot on my own, but I don’t necessarily agree (plus I’m feeling argumentative today, so it’s time for this blog’s first debate!) that America needs a parliament.
Presidentialism originates in part from the writings of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, particularly The Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu believed that all people who have power will be inherently tempted to abuse it, putting the political liberties of society at risk. As such, the only way to prevent an abuse of power is to check it with more power. In other words, power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few people, but spread amongst and divided between a set of groups such that one group cannot abuse its power. A presidential system ensures that neither the executive nor the legislative branch holds a monopoly on power; rather, they balance each other out by wielding certain powers (checks) over one another. For example, Congress has the power to declare war, but the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces (although the lines have been blurred following World War II). In this instance, separation of powers prevents one side from having a monopoly on the ability to wage wars. More generally, in the event where there’s a very conservative Congress and a liberal President like today, Congress wouldn’t be able to get ultra-conservative legislation like defunding Planned Parenthood or authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline passed because the President wields veto authority. This (in theory) would encourage Congress and the President to meet in the middle to compromise. Parliamentary systems lack a truly independent body that can oppose and/or veto legislation, which means that the party or coalition in power can pass whatever laws it wants, however radical they may be, without hindrance.
The second argument in favor of presidentialism is electoral politics. Within presidential systems, a constitution outlines when and how frequently presidential and congressional elections are to take place. And, at least in the American system, Presidents are allowed only two terms in office, which prevents one individual from dominating the executive for an extended period of time. In parliamentary systems, elections happen at least every certain number of years (in Britain for example, parliamentary elections must happen at least every five years), but prime ministers have the authority to dissolve parliament and call elections at any point within that set time, in a process known as “snap elections.” Thus, parties in power have an incentive to call elections whenever they perceive a spike in popularity to both expand their power in parliament and guarantee at least another set amount of years in office. This avoids forcing the majority party to hold elections during times of unpopularity and extends the rule of a government to longer than it would normally be in power in a presidential system.
A third argument for presidentialism, though less convincing, is that the people have a choice in electing their head of government, something that members of parliament (MP’s) choose for them in a parliamentary system. This increases the legitimacy of the government because the executive receives a direct mandate to rule. Now, prime ministers are still MP’s themselves, so they would’ve had to have been elected by their constituents in the first place, and ruling parties generally select someone likable and fit for the job. But, a situation could arise where a majority party/coalition that’s out of touch with the people appoints someone generally unpopular, undermining the legitimacy of the government (this is where Sam would cite his ease of removing prime ministers argument, but I’ll cover that below).
Now to address Sam’s arguments:
The divided mandate issue rears its ugly head anytime one or both houses in Congress are controlled by the opposite party of the President, but in many cases throughout American history, divided governments force compromise between the executive and legislative branches to get moderate legislation passed. Parliamentary systems might be more effective at passing legislation, but one shouldn’t assume that quantity of legislation is better than quality of legislation. For example, imagine if Mitch McConnell were appointed Prime Minister of the United States by the ruling Republican Party. Planned Parenthood would no longer receive federal funds, the Keystone XL pipeline would be under construction, there would be no Iran nuclear deal, Obamacare would not exist, and a traditional marriage amendment might be passed. I’m not taking a stance on any of these issues, but a government dominated by one party has the opportunity to pass extremely controversial legislation without an independent body approving it first and can manipulate the electoral cycle to ensure that it remains in power for as long as possible.
Now, I completely agree that the American political system is not currently functioning properly, but I think the gridlock that we face today is a product of the Tea Party’s overt refusal to compromise on anything, not the presidential system. It’s hard to recall a time in American political history where polarization and partisanship have been this bad. Think back to prior instances of divided government: following the Republican Revolution in 1994, plenty of good legislation got passed. Congressional Republicans had their Contract with America that proposed conservative solutions to pressing issues; whenever pieces of legislation in that contract veered too far to the right, Bill Clinton’s veto power forced Republicans to make compromises. I agree that the presidential system exacerbates problems with the two-party system, but that’s an issue with the first-past-the-post electoral system, which I’ll deal with in a later post.
Addressing Sam’s second argument: while it’s much easier to remove ineffective leaders in a parliamentary system, the ability to remove leaders on a whim precipitates unpredictability and instability within government, which could have huge implications on issues like taxation, regulations, and foreign policy – just look at Australia. The American presidential system is much more predictable and stable because it ensures that for at least four years, the same administration will be in charge (barring impeachment in the most severe circumstances), and rarely does an administration radically shift its stances on key issues. Plus, if the public doesn’t like the President, they can always vote him/her out after four years.
The last argument Sam makes is about unqualified “political outsiders,” such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Carly Fiorina, rising to power. Normally I’d pull out the “America is an advanced democracy and knows to elect qualified people for the job” card, but considering that Trump has a huge lead in the Republican race, that argument doesn’t have much credibility anymore. I agree that in a presidential system it’s much easier for a demagogue to rise to power because the executive is controlled by one person and not a whole legislature, but separation of powers exist for a reason. While it’s likely Congress will remain in Republican control after 2016, the Republican establishment fundamentally disagrees with a substantial portion of Trump’s platform. Plus, it’s Congress that proposes legislation, and even if the President sets the agenda, I don’t think there’s enough support for protectionism, building a wall, or banning the immigration of Muslims in Congress for any of that to get passed.
The presidential system isn’t perfect; there are definitely areas where it can and should be improved, but I don’t think that’s reason to seek an overhaul of the entire American political system. This era of unprecedented gridlock will pass sooner or later, after which Congress can go back to passing effective, quality legislation like it used to.