Features of Presidential Government. What has been called “presidential” government, as contra-distinguished from cabinet or parliamentary government, is that system in which the executive (including both the head of the state and his ministers) is constitutionally independent of the legislature in respect to the duration of his or their tenure and irresponsible to it for his or their political policies.
In such a system the chief of state is non merely the titular executive but he is the real executive and actually exercises the powers which the constitution and laws confer upon him. He may and generally does act through the agency of ministers or “ secretaries ” (as they are called in the United States), but they do not thereby assume the responsibility to the legislature for his acts. In legal theory, their acts are his acts they are chosen by him usually from the members of his own party, but they are not taken from the legislature and in fact they may belong to a political party which does not have a majority in either chamber of the legislature.
Indeed they can not in the United States be members of the Congress, since the exercise of legislative mandate and the holding of ministerial office at the same time are constitutionally incompatible functions. They don’t therefore, unlike cabinets in countries where the parliamentary system prevails, prepare, introduce, and advocate, in the legislative chambers, the measures which they desire to have enacted into law, except in so far as they may do so through the agency of particular members of the legislature who may be in sympathy with such measures.
They might be allowed the entree to the legislature with the right to be heard and to be interpellated, but in practice they are usually not never, in the United States. They are solely the ministers and servants of the chief executive who appoints them, and not of the legislature they are politically responsible only to him and he may dismiss them for any reason which may seem to him to be sufficient without regard to whether they have the confidence of the legislature or not.
He and they are generally responsible to the legislature or one chamber of it for certain grave crimes and may be impeached and removed from office, but they are not responsible to the legislature for their political policies or acts. Votes of censure, condemnation, or want of confidence by the legislature have therefore no legal effect and they never think of resigning in consequence of such votes or of the refusal of the legislature to enact the measures or vote the appropriations which they advocate.
The ministers are, as stated above, politically responsible only to the chief executive who appoints them, and he (in case he is popularly elected) is responsible only to the electorate.
Since, under the presidential system, the chief executive and his cabinet may, and in the United States not infrequently do, belong to a political party which is in the minority in one or both chambers of the legislature, their responsibility to the legislature under such circumstances would manifestly lead to the breakdown of the presidential system.
The Presidential System in the United States :
The presidential system finds its most conspicuous example in the United States, both in the national government and in those of the individual states, and in most of the Latin American states which have followed North American model. In a modified form it existed -in the former German Empire (1871-1919), where, as stated above, the ministers were not taken from parliament but were the servants of the Emperor, where neither he nor they were responsible to parliament for their political acts or policies, and where the tenure of the latter was dependent entirely upon the pleasure of the emperor and not at all upon the will of parliament.
In the United States, the term of the President is fixed by the constitution at four years, he is elected by the people, and his powers are prescribed by the constitution consequently he is independent of Congress in respect to his election, his powers, and the duration of his tenure. He may recommend for the consideration of Congress the enactment of particular laws which he favors or the appropriation of money for specified purposes, he may veto bills passed by Congress, to which he objects, but neither he nor the members of his cabinet may themselves introduce bills or appear in Congress to advocate their adoption, nor may he dissolve either house of Congress and order a new election.
He is absolutely free in choosing the members of his cabinet and is not obliged to select men Who have the confidence of the majority party which controls either one or both houses of Congress. Nor is he limited, as is the chief executive in parliamentary governed countries, to choosing a principal minister who selects his colleagues. He chooses them all they are his subordinates not his colleagues, consequently his relation to them is very different from the relation of the prime minister in England, for example, to his associates.
They are solely responsible to the President for their political acts and not to Congress, and they may be dismissed by the President for any reason which may seem to be sufficient or for no reason at all. The system of the United States therefore on its executive side is in large measure constitutionally autocratic and uncontrollable by Congress.
The Presidential System in Latin America :
In most of the Latin American countries the presidential system, following the pattern of the United States, has been introduced.
In Argentina the constitution, however, requires that the acts of the president shall be countersigned by the ministers, who shall be individually responsible for the acts which they sign and jointly responsible for all acts agreed upon by each minister and his colleagues (Arts. 87-88). It also provides that the ministers may attend the sessions of congress and take part in the debates but shall have no vote (Art. 92). It will be noted that while the constitution proclaims the responsibility of the ministers, it does not indicate to whom they shall be responsible, whether to the congress or the president.
The ministers are frequently interpellated in congress and in the session of January 29, 1894, an opposition member asserted that it belonged to congress at all times to require the ministers to attend and give explanations regarding their policies. Presidents and cabinets have sometimes resigned because of disagreements with the chamber of deputies, but Opinion and general practice are in favor of the principle of the independence of the executive of parliamentary majorities, as in the United States.
The constitution of Brazil (July 24,1891) is more exact and emphatic in respect to the relation between the president, his ministers, and the congress. It declares that the ministers may not appear in either chamber, that they may communicate with it only in writing or by conference with its committees, and that they shall not be responsible (except for crimes defined by law) either to the congress or the courts for the advice which they give the president.
It further fixes the term of the president at four years and declares that he can be removed only by the process of impeachment. Only in one respect does the Brazilian system differ from that of the United States the constitution requires that the acts of the president shall be countersigned by the ministers. But as in the United States this was not intended to imply the political responsibility of the ministers to either or both chambers of congress. Their political responsibility is only to the president who appoints them.
The Swiss System :
A system of government which falls in a class by itself, which differs fundamentally from the presidential and cabinet types, but which combines certain features of both, is that of Switzerland. It is a system in which the government is carried on by an Executive council or board (seven members) chosen by the legislature for the same term as its own and usually from its own membership.
It bears some resemblance to the cabinet system in that this council is, in a sense, a committee of the legislature chosen by it to exercise the executive functions of the government, that each member is head of an administrative department, that the members may occupy seats in both chambers of the legislature, that they may make motions, be heard (but may not vote) and be interpellated regarding their official acts and policies, and that they are largely subject to the control of the legislature (or rather the lower chamber) and Will ordinarily yield to its demands when the legislature insists upon it.
The council resembles a cabinet also in that it formulates and prepares drafts of all important legislative measures, including the budget, introduces them into the legislature, and advocates their enactment into law. Like the cabinet in England in practice it plays the role of leader and guide, much more So than French ministries do.
It differs from the cabinet in parliamentary governed countries, however, in that it does not necessarily in represent the majority political party or a bloc of parties in either chamber, that consequently it is not necessarily a homogeneous body, politically speaking, that the members of the council are not at the time of their election committed to any political program, that interpellations are not followed by votes of approbation or censure, and, most important of all, that the members of the council are not responsible to the legislature in the sense that they are bound to resign when they lose its confidence or when the measures or policies which they advocate are altered or rejected.
Moreover, they do not possess the power which ministries in most parliamentary governed countries have, namely, the power to dissolve the legislature, or one chamber of it, and appeal to the electorate when they believe that they rather than the legislature represent the popular will.
The Soviet System of Russia :
A recently established form of government which is distinctly sui generis, not only from the point of view of the system of representation upon which it is based but also in respect to the relation between the executive and legislative powers, is that of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic. Both the supreme legislative power and the constituent power are vested in the All-Russian Congress, representing the various soviets.
When it is not in session, its powers are exercised by a central executive committee of more than 300 members chosen by the congress. Owing to the large and unwieldy size of the congress, the committee virtually exercises the legislative power of the congress and in practice it remains in session the year round even when the congress is sitting.
It has thus become a sort of subordinate parliament which exercises its authority always subject to the supervision and ultimate control of the congress. The executive power, properly speaking, is entrusted to a council of people’s commissars, each of whom is the head of an administrative department or commissariat. They are chosen by the executive committee and are responsible individually and collectively to it for their acts and policies. The council is therefore analogous to a ministry in parliamentary governed countries.
On the whole, the Russian system is more closely akin to the cabinet or parliamentary system than to the presidential system, although it differs from them both in so many particulars that, like the Swiss system, it properly. belongs in a class by itself. Aside from the fact that it is not, and does not pretend to be, a democracy and that it rests mainly upon a system of vocational rather than geographical representation, its most distinctive feature lies in the non-existence of the principle of the separation of powers.