Characteristics of the Presidential System

Characteristics of the Presidential System. As pointed out in a previous Article , the distinguishing characteristic of the presidential system is the almost complete separation of the executive and legislative departments and the independence of each as against the other, especially in respect to their policies and powers and the duration of their tenure.

The chief executive is chosen for a specified term fixed by the constitution his powers are determined in large measure by the constitution, the members of his cabinet are appointed by him, they are subject to his direction and control, they hold office at his pleasure, they are not and cannot be at the same time members of the legislature nor even (except, e.g., in Argentina) occupy seats therein for the purpose of being heard or interpolated and they are not (nor is the president) responsible to the legislature for their official acts or policies.

However much their acts or policies may be disapproved by the legislature or the electorate they cannot be turned on of office by votes of censure, condemnation, or want of confidence hey may misgovern the country or govern it inefficiently, but the president has a constitutional right to his office until the legal expiration of his term, and the members of his cabinet have a right to theirs so long as the president sees fit to retain them.

Only if their conduct becomes criminal may they be turned out by the legislature, and then only by the cumbersome procedure of impeachment. If the views of the legislature in respect to public policies are different from those of the president and the cabinet, he cannot dissolve the legislature and appeal to the electorate to decide the issue.

He must get along with a hostile legislature the best he can until the expiration of their constitutional mandates, and they too must endure executive policies which they disapprove until the expiration of his term. It may happen, and has in fact often happened, ,that the president belongs to one political party while the legislature is controlled by another, in which case there may be a deadlock between the two great departments and therefore a state of paralysis such as can hardly exist under the cabinet system.

Defects of the Presidential System :-

To Europeans such a system appears autocratic, irresponsible, and dangerous.  It is autocratic because the president is independent of control by the chosen representatives of the people, he may govern very largely as he pleases for the duration of his term, and so long as his conduct is not criminal he cannot be turned out of office, even if every member of congress and every voter in the land should desire his removal. It is irresponsible because he cannot be held accountable to the legislature for his acts.

It may censure him, refuse to pass the measures he recommends, decline to give him the authority for which he asks, for example in times of emergency, override his vetoes, and the like, but it cannot deprive him of his constitutional powers or withdraw the mandate which the electorate gave him at the time of his election. It is true that theoretically he is responsible to the electorate for the manner in which he exercises his mandate, but in the absence of provision for a popular recall there is no way by which it can be enforced. Manifestly the refusal to reelect the president after several years of misgovernment is no effective enforcement of responsibility.

It may happen that he is not a candidate for reelection or may not, in consequence of law or custom, be eligible to reelection. In that case the electorate has no opportunity to express an opinion on the presidents conduct or policies, much less to turn him out of office.

Other defects of the presidential system are the lack of direct initiative on the part of the president and the members of his cabinet in respect to legislation, the loss of energy and efficiency resulting from deadlocks between the executive and legislative departments and from the lack of harmonious‘s collaboration between them, and (if we consider the multiple committee system to be a feature of presidential government) the admittedly unsatisfactory methods of legislation through the agency of a large number of committees, often with overlapping jurisdiction, each independent of the others, none of them being responsible for the legislation which they recommend and all of them deliberating under conditions such that they are little affected by the force of public opinion.

Happily, however, the chief dangers of the presidential system, namely those which are always possible in consequence of the constitutionally autocratic character of the presidential office and the unenforceable responsibility of the incumbent, have never revealed themselves in practice in the United States.

There have been few serious complaints on this score and the number of Americans who would displace the presidential system for the parliamentary type is probably not large. With the conceptions which prevail in the United States relative to the office and role of the chief magistrate, they would be unwilling to exchange him for a titular figurehead such as the introduction of the cabinet system would require.

Why the Cabinet System was Not Introduced in the United States:-

The question has been discussed as to why the cabinet system was not introduced into the United States along with other English legal and political institutions when the colonies separated from the mother country and became independent. In one form or another that system was then, as now, by far the most common type of government throughout the world and it would have been very natural for the Americans to have adopted it, at least with such modifications as their political notions and conditions seemed to require. But they did not on the contrary, they invented a new system greatly unlike that of the mother country.

The late President Wilson expressed the Opinion that they did not introduce -it because it was in more or less disrepute in America and because it possessed many features which did not invite republican imitation. To most Americans, he said, the English constitution was that of George III and Lord North rather than that of-the Whigs, while the ministry was looked upon as a coterie of royal favorites who were controlled by the crown rather than by the House of Commons.

They found it hard to believe that the legislative and executive branches could be brought into such close relations as the cabinet system involved without the legislature being dominated by the executive. To avoid the danger of executive domination, therefore, it was thought necessary to keep the two departments separate, and to this end they established a system of checks and balances Such as the cabinet system did not permit.

Lord Bryce explained the failure of the Americans to adopt the cabinet system by their ignorance of its real character. They did not know it, he said, because it was still immature, because Englishmen themselves did not understand it, and because the recognized authorities did not mention it.

Early Parliamentary Methods in the United States :-

It may be ob served, however, that in the beginning a procedure bearing some resemblance to parliamentary methods was actually followed by Congress. Cabinet members frequently appeared in the House of Representatives for the purpose of giving information and for consultation. Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, especially assumed the role of a crown minister, and his example was followed by other cabinet members.

At the time, all branches of the government were housed in the same building, so that communication between the executive and legislative departments was greatly facilitated j they were in fact in almost as close touch as if the cabinet ministers had been members of Congress.

For some years these close relations were maintained and the cabinet ministers exerted an important influence in the shaping of legislation. When finally continuance of this relationship was definitely terminated and the members of the cabinet were excluded from appearing in Congress, some members of Congress expressed regret at the change.

Proposals to Allow Cabinet Members to Occupy Seat in Congress :-

As time passed and the disadvantages resulting from the dis-junction of the executive and legislative departments and the obvious advantages of a closer relationship in the processes of legislation became more and more manifest, proposals were made on several occasions to revert to the earlier practice and indeed to permit cabinet ministers to occupy seats in either house of Congress for the purpose of answering questions, giving information, and advocating the enactment of measures recommended by the President.

Such a proposal was made by a select committee of the House in the 38th Congress and by a similar committee of the Senate in the 46th Congress (1881). Judge Story in his work on “The Constitution” dwelt upon the advantages of such a procedure, and more recently President Taft in a special message to Congress (1913)43 urged its adoption. President Wilson was also known to be in favor of the proposal.

By bringing the executive and legislative departments face to face for the purpose of consultation and collaboration, instead of keeping them at arm  length and working at cross purposes, the time of Congress, it was argued, would be economized, a channel would be afforded by which Congress could keep itself better informed of what the executive department was doing, harmony of action between the two departments would be promoted, and the executive would be relieved from much unnecessary criticism based on misunderstanding and lack of accurate information.

The ignorance, said President Taft,

“that Congress at times has of what is actually going on in the executive department, and the fact that hours of debate and pages of the Congressional Record might be avoided by the answer to a single question by a competent cabinet officer on the floor of either house, is frequently brought sharply to the attention of competent observers.“

As it is, the only means by which Congress may obtain official information regarding the policies of the President is through the slow and circumlocutory process of a formal resolution addressed to the President and his reply thereto, the only way by which the President may get his proposals for legislation actually introduced as bills before Congress is through the action of kindly disposed members and the only way by which he can secure a hearing before the committees is through his cabinet ministers, when they are invited to appear.

The admission of cabinet members to Congress would enable the President to exert in an open and official manner that influence Upon Congress which the country more and more expects of him and which his responsibility to the country implies. As it is, his official power is exhausted when he has delivered his formal message to Congress, since neither he nor his cabinet members may follow up openly his recommendations by oral explanations, argument or persuasion.