What follows reflects the perspective of someone who resides in the United States, the legislative branch of which, the United States Congress, differs from legislative branches in other democratic systems, most of which are characterized by parliamentary systems. The distinctions between the American and other legislative branches are most prominent in the manner in which a chief executive is elected, how the powers of a chief executive are outlined, and how the balance of power between branches of government and the delegation of responsibilities for each branch are established.
The strengths of the legislative branch of the federal government of the United States include the representative nature of that branch. The authors of the Constitution of the United States made the establishment of the legislative branch of the new government they were forming their first order of business for a reason: the Legislature would most directly and closely represent the interests of the people who elected congresspersons and senators to the respective chambers of Congress. One of the Framers’ greatest priorities in drafting the Constitution was preventing the emergence of an autocratic office (i.e., that of the president). The American Revolution was a rejection of the British Crown and the notion that a chief executive or leader unanswerable to the citizenry was not to be tolerated in the newly formed United States of America. The legislative branch, therefore, was established and vested with certain powers specifically to ensure that a dictatorship would not emerge.
Under the Constitution, the legislative branch is vested with what is called “the power of the purse.” That means that money spent by the federal government must be authorized and appropriated by Congress. The president requests funds for numerous purposes, but it is Congress that authorizes that money to be spent and writes the check. Again, this is a strength of the legislative branch: the body that is most directly answerable to the citizenry is that which has the power to raise and spend money.
Another strength of the legislative branch of government involves its power to declare war on other nations. Again, fearful of an autocratic chief executive with the wherewithal to lead the nascent nation into unnecessary wars, the Framers of the Constitution vested the authority to go to war with Congress. As stated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the legislature alone has the power “to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water...”
In other words, the president, the office of which is established in Article II of the Constitution, cannot, under the Constitution, declare war on other countries. To further emphasize this point, Article I, Section 8 further vests with Congress the power “to raise and support Armies,” meaning that the chief executive not only cannot unilaterally take the nation to war, but he or she cannot even create and maintain the military needed to do so if so inclined.
While the strengths of the legislative branch are impressive, the weaknesses of that branch of government emanate from those same strengths.
The United States Congress, by design the branch of the government most responsive to the public, is also arguably over-sensitive to the demands of that public, at least when it comes to spending finite amounts of the public’s money. The phrase “pork barrel legislation” refers to the overwhelming tendency among legislatures to give the public what it wants in exchange for the public’s approval during the next electoral cycle. Most members of Congress—in fact, the overwhelming majority—devote considerable time to “bringing home the bacon.” Spending bills are regularly filled with thousands of individual provisions intended to ensure that one’s district or state receives as much money as possible. To a degree, this is fine and legitimate. Unfortunately, it is routinely carried to extremes, with billions of dollars spent every year on questionable projects that benefit only one’s constituency.
Another weakness of the legislative branch is its increasing partisanship. Historically, philosophical distinctions between political parties have been real and the source of considerably acrimony. That did not, however, prevent members of Congress from working together for a greater good. Nor did it prevent these individuals from working cordially and professionally across the political divide. Those days are over. The level of partisanship in Congress has reached the point at which the common good is routinely sublimated to bitter partisan divisiveness intended solely to undermine the other side’s agenda irrespective of that agenda’s merits.
A growing weakness of the legislative branch is apparent in respective presidents’ use of “executive orders” to circumvent the Constitutionally established legislative process. An extension of the bitter level of partisanship that has subsumed Congress, and the public as a whole, executive orders are now the principal instrument employed by presidents to advance their political agendas irrespective of the concerns of the legislature (at least that part of the legislature that opposes the president’s initiatives). This fundamentally undermines the intent of the Framers in drafting the Constitution by allowing for excessive power on the part of the chief executive and majority party while ensuring that the minority party in the Senate cannot put the brakes on a drift towards autocracy through the minority’s final vestige of power, the Senate filibuster. As this phenomenon includes the use or abuse of war powers, one could conclude that Congress’s increasing willingness to allow for the rise of an imperial presidency with diminishing regard for minority opinions is leading the United States away from the constitutional form of government that provided the basis for the nation’s growth.