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The President Is Not the Prime Minister

The President of the United States is not a Prime Minister. We do not have a Westminster-style, unitary system of government in the United States. In a Westminster system, like they have in Britain, the Executive (the Prime Minister) is also a member of the legislative body, and as such is free to introduce, craft, and vote on legislation, in addition to ensuring the law (once passed) is enforced. This is not how the American system works. Rather, we have a strict separation of powers, where the Executive (the president) cannot exercise any legislative powers (the power to make law). The Executive is tasked with enforcing the laws, not making them. As part of our vaunted systems of ‘checks and balances’ though, the Executive is given some legislative power–the president’s approval for new laws is required and the president can also veto legislation coming out of Congress. Although the Veto is a powerful tool, it is only a reactive tool: the president can stop legislation, but he (or she) cannot create it. That is a job for Congress alone.

Indeed, it goes one step further than that! In Parliament, the Prime Minister is also (usually) the leader of his/her party (since being made PM requires a majority of Members of Parliament, or MPs, to vote), so not only does the Prime Minister have the power to craft legislation, it is also his job to marshal it through Parliament and ensure that legislation he approves of is passed and legislation he disapproves of is defeated (though that is usually left to his right hand man, the Chief Whip).

In America, none of this is true. The President is not in Congress, the President has no power to write legislation or pass legislation, and getting legislation through Congress is not the president’s job. That should be left to people like the Speaker of the House (a position actually very similar to a Prime Minister).

In fewer words, I want to see the presidency returned to its proper role: one that stays almost entirely out of legislative matters. The president currently has no power to introduce legislation–though given the heft of the presidency, it is not usually difficult to find a congressman or Senator willing to introduce the legislation on the president’s behalf–but we should move to a political culture where there is no expectation of the president to introduce and marshal legislation through Congress.

The President will of course retain a role in influencing legislation–threatening to veto legislation unless things he approves/disapproves of are added/removed, and there is something to be said in favor of the president acting as a go-between for a divided Congress. Otherwise, my ideal president would remain entirely aloof from the process of making and passing legislation, leaving it to the party leaders and the legislators to get on with the task of legislating.

A long standing tradition of the president promising to the masses that he will pass or have passed certain legislation is, I think, deeply unhealthy for the Republic, as the president/candidate is not only promising something he cannot Constitutionally deliver, he is misleading the American public as to what the president’s job is. I think what is badly needed is a gag order on presidential candidates. I would be in favor of amending the Constitution* if we could make just one exception to the 1st Amendment: presidential candidates can no longer say while running for president that they will “introduce” or “pass” legislation! That is a job which is and ought to be left to Congress.

I am sick and tired of hearing presidential candidates pretending as if they are a Prime Minister, someone who has near complete control of Congress and can just pass legislation on a whim! Indeed, it was this haughty and naive notion which has led, I suspect, to the great disappointment among many Democratic voters for Barack Obama. They were disappointed to discover that a single president cannot in fact usher in profound and sweeping change by force of will and the audacity of hope alone. Though for precisely the same reasons, Democrats everywhere should not fear too much from a Donald Trump administration (and as irksome as I find presidential candidates promising to act as Prime Minister and “pass legislation”, at least paying lip service to Congress and the Constitution is better than Trump’s technique of ignoring it entirely).

-SL

*Of course, I would prefer we simply grow a culture mature enough to make that kind of promise ineffective at procuring votes rather than having to amend the Constitution and allow the government to criminalize certain speech.

 

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1 Comment

  1. […] this is what set me off earlier: Hillary Clinton recently announced that she will be pushing for a Constitutional amendment to […]

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