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Sunday, December 14, 2003

US EXCEPTIONALISM, The 6th Article On Mistrust of Big Government Continued: Congress vs. Parliamentary Legislatures

Still unfolding, a few articles left to publish, the current mini-series on US exceptionalism among the democratic countries --- for good or bad --- started the 6th article in that series last Sunday, December 7, 2003. It wasn't concluded, and then a buggy prof trip to Los Angeles followed and delayed its finish. When I got back, I found a stimulating commentary left by a legal specialist, John, on the differences between American and EU Continental legal systems. Replying to John took part of Thursday. Then, on Friday and Saturday as it happened, prof bug's mind was diverted by the need to learn some new computer programs --- specifically, Dreamwever MX for web design, Acrobat 6 for .pdf files, and Photocopy . . . the latter for futzing around with charts and other images: a crop here, a new splash of red or blue there, a fine-tuned enlargement opposite, on and on. Plus, come to think of it, some donkey-work reviewing HTML and XHTML coding. Even tried my hand at XML coding: ouch, who has time for it all?

The upshot?

The concluding section of the 6th article didn't materialize until . . . well, about a minute ago, give or take a few seconds. Actually, that's wrong --- the reference to "concluding" anyway. The key topic of the 6th installment --- American mistrust of big government and bureaucratic rule --- will require at least another article-installment. So what follows here?

Well, it's the concluding section of the argument that was left hanging fire since last Sunday's start of the 6th article --- and that, scout's honor, prof bug did just finish. Long enough in its own right, and sufficiently crammed with comparative analysis to boot, that section, it seems, deserves to be republished here as a stand-alone article. Will visitors share this bugged-out view? Let us hope so. And remember, the buggy comments that follow are all intended to underscore one of the key exceptions that define American political life compared to the EU democracies --- and not only them, but the Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders: an institutionalized mistrust of big government and bureaucratic rule, reinforced as we'll see by strong currents in American culture . . . again, remember, always for good or bad. The latter exists. It entails some defects of our separation of powers, viewed comparatively, that are set out here and then analyzed. How serious these defects are is debatable. In prof bug's mind, the virtues of hemming in full-tilt, free-wheeling executive power --- which is what the Constitution expects Congress and the courts to do --- seem to overshadow them.

Another thing to remember. We're still left with the need to supply other evidence for this ingrained American mistrust: among it --- bulking large as we'll see in the next article (a continuation of the 6th installment, almost a mini-series of its own) --- is how limited government spending is in this country compared to the EU and Japan. Who knows? On current trends, this series on American exceptionalism might go on uncoiling for a couple of more weeks and into the new year.

(iv.) Imposing Powers Enjoyed by Congress To Monitor The Executive Branch

No other legislature anywhere comes close to these powers. Remember here, the strength of a legislature in a political system hinges on four powers generally:

  • the ability to initiate all legislation
  • the ability to control the legislative agenda
  • the ability to approve, amend, or overturn all policies and laws involving taxes
  • the ability to monitor and criticize the executive branch, including the president . . . if need be with the power of impeachment

On all four counts, for good or bad, the US Congress stands out as a remarkably strong legislature, and that's true of both houses. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, the fusion of the PM and the Cabinet with a majority in the legislature means that the executive determines:
Imposing Powers Enjoyed by Congress To Monitor The Executive Branch

  • what the legislative agenda will be;

  • what little or no scope parliamentarians themselves have to introduce significant legislation;

  • why they, the PM and Cabinet, need not worry much about the legislature amending or overturning policies they want to;

  • or why parliaments these days have very limited ability to act as watchdogs monitoring carefully the executive and, if need be, punish executive wrongdoers or force their resignation

Note the phrase in italics at the outset of the earlier paragraph. It's there intentionally, a means of signaling that Congress's independence and powers means that there are, at times, longer delays in the US system of government when it come to getting certain legislation enacted. From a European viewpoint, that might be a serious problem . . . especially when the policies or laws that need legislative approval are under a time-pressure. Filibustering is a further hindrance here at times. It can allow a minority party, or even a minority of the minority, to bog down Congressional votes for days, weeks, or longer, all depending. On a different level, back in the late 1930s, President Franklyn Roosevelt and his advisers recognized that war would the fascists in Europe and with militarized Japan was well-nigh inevitable, and his efforts at rearmament were repeatedly trimmed by a combination of Congressional resistance and isolationist sentiments in public opinion.


But wait

While all this is true, it can be overdone.

After all, from a general American viewpoint --- not one shared by all citizens, of course --- the delays when it comes to changing the status quo in bold, hurried manner are purposeful . . . part of the entire Constitutional process of separating the powers of government into three branches and ensuring that any major changes have at least been carefully investigated by powerful Congressional committees, which can, among other things, require all members of the executive branch except the President himself to appear before the committees and testify. The same is true of having access to all relevant documents, even those that come under the heading of national security; in that case, the committees --- say, those in intelligence --- meet in private and abridge their public reports. As for the example of FDR's defense and foreign policy initiatives being repelled or at least hemmed in before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it can be way overdone. Consider the evidence in retrospect.

Start with the parliamentary great powers in West Europe in the 1930s. Down to September 1st, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland and WWII started in Europe, neither British nor French appeasement policies were restricted by the House of Commons or the Chamber of Deputies; they were unwise, pure and simply. The initiatives open to their Cabinet governments led to folly. Similarly, in both countries, public opinion was staunchly opposed to war France throughout the late 1930s right through and after the Munich Agreement of September 1938; it changed only after Hitler tore up the scrap of paper --- Peace in Our Time Neville Chamberlain had said after the Munich Conference, waving the signed paper in the air --- and overran the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Until then, whatever some of the hawks in either government or on the backbenches like Winston Churchill might have wanted, neither the British nor the French governments had much more leeway in adopting outright military threats, let alone action, than Roosevelt did in the USA.

For that matter, if you look at the rearmament carried out by the three democratic countries until they entered the war, FDR's America was better prepared militarily in December 1941 than either the British or the French when Hitler invaded Poland.

The House of Commons had delayed conscription right down through 1938 and into 1939, not least thanks to the Labour Party's opposition, and the government could offer only 10 divisions to side with the French in the crucial battle for the lowland countries and France in April and May 1940. (Fortunately, after France fell, the British government did have good fighter planes and enough in number, plus radar, to allow the courageous British to win the air battle over the country during the summer and into the fall of that year.) The French, whose army was considered the equal of the Germans in strength and weaponry, nonetheless couldn't and wouldn't reinforce the light barriers to the north and west of the Maginot line along the Ardennes forests and river valleys where the Germans invaded. Why? The French high command did appreciate that the defensive line was too vulnerable there, and General Gamelin, the supreme commander, urged the French government in 1938 and well into 1939 to provide more funds for strengthening them. They weren't forthcoming. According to the left-wing Popular Front of socialists, radicals, and communists in power since early 1936, the new social policies and the lingering effects of the Depression meant that there was no extra money to be allocated for the crucial defense of the country. Was FDR any weaker? Actually in some respects, he did better.

In particular, if FDR was frustrated in getting Congressional approval for a larger army than the tiny, almost risible one that existed when we entered war with Japan and Nazi Germany in December 1941, he got enough funds to ensure that we did have a large carrier force --- ships, crews, planes, and airmen --- when the war began. The upshot? Within a few months after Pearl Harbor, was sufficient to defeat the Japanese navy in the critical battle at Midway in the summer of 1942. It was the beginning of Japan's prolonged defeat, a pivotal blow its military never recovered from.

Nor was that all. Despite isolationist sentiment after WWII began in September 1939, FDR was able on his own to get sufficient leeway from Congress for Lend-Lease, which kept the British isles and military machine supplied with US loans; and the supplies were carried by US merchant ship protected by American and British destroyers --- the latter augmented by a gift of large numbers of US destroyers to the embattled British. Initially, American destroyers were ordered to protect our merchant marine only as far out as Greenland; soon, though, FDR issued orders to extend the protection all the way to the British Isles, and that meant that US naval forces were fighting German submarines long before we entered the war itself in late 1941. [At the end of the war, Lend-Lease was cancelled, and so were the debts of the British and the Russians, the latter also supplied under the act after we entered the war.]


The key Congressional power

In the end, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Congressional power in policymaking compared to the EU and other democratic parliamentary systems, that power fits in with American mistrust of big government. In turn, the weightiest of Congresses' powers --- its ability to serve as a watchdog of our executive, both the political and the bureaucratic sides --- has no equivalent anywhere in the other democratic countries: not even in Britain, where the House of Commons Select Committees have been able to strengthen their own authority the last two or three decades. The reference to committees is significant: legislators have to be specialized, have knowledge of the subjects they are supposed to oversee, have large staffs of professionally trained experts --- economists, defense and intelligence specialists, environmentalists, specialists on social policy, criminologists, and so --- funded by legislative enactment, and have the ability to arraign all members of the executive branch except the President himself. If, in turn --- as happens from time to time --- the President invokes executive authority, it is then left to the federal courts, right up to the level of the Supreme Court, to formally settle the dispute. Nowhere in parliamentary systems is there such openness. Probably the closest that approximates it are the Danes. As for Britain, the House of Commons doesn't have nearly the same number of specialized committees; the committees have woefully few specialists at their disposal for expert monitoring of the executive, and few funds for hiring more; and their ability to operate in a bipartisan fashion --- though improving --- and call any members of the executive is very limited by US standards.

The result? It's graphic. Americans have a good idea, generally, what their leaders and their top bureaucrats are up to, including their misdeeds. Ponder the weight of the evidence:

Right now, the American public knows a great deal about VIce President Cheney's background and fortune, whereas the Canadian public has no idea how it is that Jean Chretien, the recently retired Liberal Party Prime Minister, is a multi-millionaire after 40 years in office. Similarly, the French public has no idea what President Chirac's current fortune is --- though after decades in office in that country, with no private career ever, he owns, among other things, a lavish chateau in the Loire valley; nor does the French public know how it is that, in the 14 years when Francois Mitterand was the socialist president, his son ended up a billionaire selling arms to French-client states in the Middle East and Africa.

And of course nobody knows why it was --- after even Saddam Hussein's Soviet patron wouldn't supply him with nuclear technology in 1976, worried about what the brutal dictator might do with it --- Prime Minister Chirac at the time was only too happy to negotiate a lucrative contract with the tyrant. Hmm. You're left wondering, no?

Replies: 1 Comment

I think you are confusing "Anglo-saxon" exceptionalism with US exceptionalism in this article. In all Anglo-saxon democracies the parliament is intended to monitor the executive. In the UK that is precisely what the Hutton enquiry into the recent WMD/Suicide claims has been doing. Likewise politicians in the UK are repeatedly hauled over the coals for failing to declare "interests" in individuals, companies, industries and foreign countries. Some have had their careers blighted temproarily or permenantly as a result.

Federal countries such as Australia or Canada also show similar tensions between the different levels of government, whihc helps keep the federal executive reasonably honest, however even in the highly centralized UK distrust of the government for one reason or another is extremely widespread. You may recall Mrs Thatcher's Poll Tax problems and indeed Tony Blair's problems with the various countryside groups and there is persistent distrust of the Eurocrats.

Likewise any member of the House of commons may introduce a bill and while it is true that bills introduced without government support rarely proceed that is not the same as never. Indeed it is quite common that a bill introduced by an MP whihc turns out to be popular is swiftly endorsed by the government of the day. And of course government support does not guarantee that a bill will be passed, even the Blair government, which has the largest majority for a considerably time has failed ot get bills passed without major modification and some issues, such as the desire of numerous home secretaries to give us all ID cards, have never been introduced to the house because the governmetn whips are positive that such a bill will be defeated.

The difference, it seems to me, is that in the US there is much less of the belief that the government should be a "nanny state". That as you mentioned earlier truly is exceptional but British 17th century history resulted in numerous checks and balances within the parliamentary system. The USA may have codified them in a single constitution (and amendments) but they also exist in the hodgepodge of case law, precedent and legislation that is the British Constitution and all executives, including the current one, chafe under them.



Many thanks for your detailed, stimulating observations. They merit, it seems to me, a separate article for my replies.

Posted by Francis @ 12/15/2003 08:21 AM PST