US presidentialism: no room for political deadlock

With the tiresome election of GOP leader Kevin McCarthy for the US House of Representatives, critics are tempted to condemn US democracy. However, writes David Pimenta, the quality of presidential systems of government depends on the separation of powers. It also depends on mutual control between a strong executive and empowered legislative assemblies that can overcome temporary deadlocks

Separation is the key

Following heated midterm elections in the US, the House of Representatives then failed to find a speaker until the 15th ballot. These messy scenes have drawn sharp criticism of the American political system. Yet, due in part to the strong separation of powers, conflicts like this in the US political system are not unusual.

In American presidentialism, the executive and legislative branches are completely separate. In parliamentarism, by contrast, the same individuals operate in both branches. Neither the president nor the members of the president’s team have a seat in US Congress. Moreover, the people, not a legislative assembly, elects the president, and they therefore act according to the US Constitution. Congress can initiate a process of impeachment if the president violates the US Constitution for reasons unrelated to political competence, unlike legislative assemblies in parliamentarian systems. Also, the president doesn’t have the power to dissolve the legislative assembly.

In American presidentialism, the executive and legislative branches are completely separate. In parliamentarism, by contrast, the same individuals operate in both branches

In this presidential system, the power emanating from the US Constitution exists on higher ground than the other powers. However, there is potential for conflict between the three branches, where supremacy, although not constitutionally written, falls on the legislative branch. This branch has the ability to produce constitutional amendments and, eventually, to change the US Constitution.

There is such a clear-cut separation between the executive and legislative branches that each derives its democratic legitimacy from the popular vote. This architecture may lead to conflicts opposing the legislative assembly and the president. Think of the well-known opposition of Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and Speaker of the House of Representatives, to former Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Ultimately, the conflicts can even generate a debate over who best represents the people’s best interests.

Distinctive presidential initiative

The new composition and leadership of the US House of Representatives presage a bitter conflict between Republicans and Democrats. Yet, the conflicts that have arisen in American executive-legislative politics have been relatively moderate. This is a result of the parties' maturity and discipline. It is also the result of the popular legitimacy of the executive branch, which acts as a moderator of the different interests pursued by representatives of the legislative branch.

In US politics, the popular legitimacy of the executive branch acts as a moderator of the different interests pursued by representatives of the legislative branch

The US Constitution gives the president important legislative instruments: the veto, the partial veto, the authority to legislate by decree, the exclusive initiative to start legislative initiatives, the budgetary initiative and the power to call a referendum. Regarding the presidential veto, the president has the power to veto law proposals from congress. There are two types of veto. A majority of 2/3 of congress can confirm the qualified negative veto. The pocket veto adopts the form of an absolute veto, and is not subject to congress confirmation.

The president can present legislative proposals to congress and appoint special joint sessions with congress. Also, the president, as a member of a party (and due to the obvious importance of their function), may try to influence congress members to approve specific legislation.

History matters

Today's presidential system is founded on the social and political particularities of the American Revolution, the cradle of modern liberal and republican principles. This New World revolution was intimately connected to Old World politics. When thirteen British colonies fought for independence to forge a new nation, they inspired French revolutionaries to oppose the despotic monarchy model.

The goal of The Federalist Papers was to defend the American constitutional project. The Papers set out the critical division of power between executive and legislative branches

In the early days of the American political system, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers. Their goal was to defend and hail the American constitutional project. This collection of articles and essays sets out the fundamentals of the critical division of power between the executive and legislative branches.

Alongside the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, The Federalist Papers are a political philosophy piece essential for understanding the architecture of American presidentialism.

Checks on presidential powers

The British parliamentary monarchy mixes executive power with legislative power in a cabinet government. By contrast, the American founding fathers created a system characterised by the separation of powers within a framework of checks and balances.

The Federalist Papers thus mitigate potentially tyrannical impulses of any one branch. They also ensure that the government has the power to exercise control of the citizens. Simultaneously, the government ensures its obligation to control itself, as Federalist No. 51 so eloquently states.

The branch that caused more worry and attention was the executive one. This was due, in part, to the traumatic experience of rebellion against the British monarchy. It was vital that the president didn’t become a dictator by accumulating or seizing power. Therefore, the founding fathers applied some important prophylactic measures when designing the features of the president’s role. They limited the number of terms a president could serve, and curtailed other functions, namely the legislative ones.

Trust the presidential system

The recently elected hardline conservative Republicans of the US House of Representatives created havoc in the election of McCarthy. They will certainly oppose and try to block Joe Biden’s political agenda in the same way as left-wing Democrats opposed Republican presidents in the past.

However, as Federalist No. 70 expresses, the American republic was projected to be a vigorous one. Its vigour derives from presidential power – the most accountable of all powers because it is executed by one individual elected by the citizens. At the dawn of the USA, The Federalist Papers authors knew that a weak republic was a precarious one. They knew, too, that only an energetic executive power operated by a president could protect the republic from danger.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of David Pimenta
David Pimenta
PhD candidate, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon / PhD fellowship-holder, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia

David's research interests include nationalism, ethnic conflicts, comparative politics, geopolitics and history.

He is also an Editor at Politikon – IAPSS Journal of Political Science and a columnist at Público newspaper, where he writes on politics, international relations and history.

Previously he held several management positions across various organisations.

David holds an MSc in Business Administration from ISCTE Business School and a BA in International Relations and Political Science from the Catholic University of Portugal.

He tweets @DavidJDPimenta

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