Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, October 21, 2013

Comparing presidential and parliamentary systems

Eric Black, a thoughtful journalist at MinnPost speculates and asks a couple experts. It's not a thorough comparison, but it offers an introduction to analysis and discussion.

Second-guessing shutdown: Would a parliamentary system have avoided the crisis?
Deep question: What would the great shutdown crisis of 2013 look like if the United States had a parliamentary system instead of the presidential system created in our Constitution?

Simple-minded answer: It wouldn’t have occurred. In a typical parliamentary system, there is either just one house of parliament or (more commonly) one house has most of the power. So you wouldn’t get a standoff in which the two houses couldn’t agree on a budget because they were controlled by different parties.

And in a classic, let’s say British-styled system, you wouldn’t get a situation in which the leader of the executive branch (in our case, the president) is at loggerheads with the party that controlled the legislative branch. In a parliamentary system the chief executive (prime minister) is the leader of the majority party in the legislative branch (or the prime minister leads a coalition of parties that constitutes the majority in the powerful house of the parliament)…

In the case of a coalition made up of two or more parties… There is always the possibility that the coalition might break up… In that case, in a parliamentary system, there are two things that typically occur, either of which would (theoretically) prevent a long-standoff/gridlock/meltdown such as the United States has just endured.

Thing one: A new negotiation might result in a new majority coalition, possibly with a somewhat different lineup of partners.

Thing two: The crisis would lead to a “snap election.”…

U of M political scientist Kathryn Sikkink… didn’t take long to caution me against the danger, in such a moment, of “romanticizing” other systems.

It took only another moment for her to mention the case of the parliamentary meltdown in Belgium in 2010-2011… it ended up taking a record 353 days to form a coalition that could command majority support.

Professor Alfred Montero, chairman of Carleton College’s political science department… led me on a longer tour of the contrasts between the two basic models and some special features that make the U.S. system unusual.

The “presidential system,” which is what scholars call the U.S. system, predominates mostly in the Americas. The parliamentary system predominates in Europe.

Among the presidential systems, ours is characterized by one of the weakest presidencies, Montero said…

One of the unusual features of our system… is what Montero calls by the snappy nickname “symmetrical bicameralism.” Many of the world’s legislative branches have two houses. But in most cases, one of the houses has most of the power…

But in our system, both houses are very powerful, roughly equal…

From the kind of international comparative standpoint that Montero brings, the U.S. system is also characterized by weak parties. Or perhaps one should say weak party leaderships…

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