Synoptic Legislatures 1
Mike Simpson c2003, amended by AJE 2011
Role and Power of Second Chambers
Role of Political Parties within the Legislature
Role of Legislators as Delegates or Representatives
The Relationships with the Executive and
Judicial Branches of Government
Issues concerning Representation, Accountability
Legislatures, executives and judiciaries make up the prin cipal institutions of any government.
Traditionally legislatures, also referred to as parliaments, congresses and assemblies, are highly regarded by democrats, at least in principle, because they usually represent the will of the people.
Most legislatures today, at least in democratic countries, are directly elected and this is the principal source of their legitimacy.
Not only are legislatures regarded politically superior to other branches of government for this reason, they also tend to act as the forum in which major issues of the days are discussed - and sometimes resolved.
Perhaps more importantly, at least in a formal sense, most legislatures have the power to make and unmake law and often act as a check on the executive, scrutinising, criticising and publicising its decisions. Further, in parliamentary systems the executive is drawn directly from the legislature.
There are exceptions to all these generalisations however, but one feature of all modern legislatures is the widespread belief that they are in decline and no longer effectively fulfil their traditional roles.
A final point worth noting is that legislatures vary enormously in their composition, role, responsibilities and powers and that generalisations inevitably require frequent qualificatio n.
One feature that all seem to have in common, however, is that they conduct much of their public business through open debate, although the work of committees is also usually very important.
Synoptic Legislatures 2
Parliamentary Systems and Presidential Systems
One of the key initial distinctions to make is between the position of legislatures in parliamentary systems and their role in presidential systems.
In essence, the basis of this distinction is the relationship between the legislature and the executive.
The key feature of parliamentary systems is the fusion of the legislature and the executive branches of government. Members of the executive branch are drawn from the legislative branch to whom they remain accountable, both individually and collectively. Further, all members of the executive must normally be members of the legislature.
Presidential systems, on the other hand, are marked by a much more formal separation of powers which usually insist that members of the legislature cannot be members of the executive.
This separation of personnel does not necessary imply a separation of function, however, and the different branches may share responsibility for the same function, for example, in the USA all three branches of government share some responsibility for legislati on, be it generating it, shaping it, agreeing to it or interpreting it.
The obvious examples of parliamentary systems are the UK, Sweden, India and New Zealand. Presidential systems are to be found in the USA and parts of South America, for example, Braz il.
N.B. Be careful not to confuse the distinction between parliamentary and presidential systems with that between unitary and federal systems. The UK and Japan are both parliamentary and unitary, but Germany is parliamentary and federal, the USA presidential and federal. And some parliamentary systems have a largely ceremonial president as Head of State, although political power is held by the Prime Minister as Head of...
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