The Role of the Legislature in Western Democracies

The Role of the Legislature in Western Democracies

The Role of the Legislature in Western Democracies

The Role of the Legislature in Western Democracies

Excerpt

For many decades, it has been an article of faith among political scientists and politicians that dramatic differences exist between the parliamentary system of government displayed in Britain and elsewhere and the presidential system of government that was created in the United States. Nowhere is this difference more stark than in the legislature -- the parliament versus the congress. The difference begins with the names. As James Q. Wilson has pointed out, "parliament" derives from the French parler, "to talk," while "congress" comes from a Latin term meaning "a coming together." Wilson notes that the principal daily work of a parliament is debate, while a congress engages first and foremost in representation and action, especially lawmaking.

There are also other differences, ranging from the legislature's relationship with the executive to the selection of individual members to the internal legislative structures. A main focus of scholars has been the difference in voting patterns -- a parliament, such as the British, has party discipline; a congress (at least, the American Congress) does not.

Legislatures, of course, are still legislatures and thus have much in common, but it has been the differences between Congress and various parliaments that have characterized most of the analysis and comparison over the years.

In recent years, however, changes have been occurring in most western legislatures that suggest important, common trends. The U.S. Congress, in the 1970s, decentralized power and perquisites to rank- and-file "backbench" members; expanded resources, particularly staffs and information processing equipment, to all legislators and committees; and opened proceedings and actions to outside interests, the public and the mass media. All these changes occurred before a backdrop of growing mutual distrust and animosity between Congress and the executive. By the end of the decade, however, many in Congress who had precipitated these reforms were having second thoughts and were talking . . .

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