Frank Buckley is a Canadian-born academic who has long been a leading legal scholar
in the United States. Despite (or perhaps because of) living in America for many years,
he has not lost his affection for queen and parliament. In The Once and Future King,
he offers a penetrating analysis of the dangerous growth of executive power in three
predominantly English-speaking democracies: Great Britain, Canada, and the United
States. Executives in all three nations have increased their authority at the expense of
the legislature in recent decades. But Buckley contends that Britain and Canadas
parliamentary regimes are better able to limit the dangers of executive aggrandizement
than Americas separation-of-powers system.
Buckleys book has many strengths and undoubtedly qualifies as a major contribution
to the debate over comparative constitutional design. On some key issues,
however, he overrates the benefits of parliamentary systems and undervalues those
Perhaps the strongest part of the book is the first half, where Buckley traces the
growth of executive power in all three nations. The rise of the imperial presidency
in the United States is a much discussed phenomenon. Less well known is the increasing
concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and his or her staff in
the British and Canadian political systems.
Buckley argues that executive aggrandizement is rooted in the fundamental
nature of modern government. Because the state has taken on numerous complex
functions, it requires a large bureaucracy, which is more readily controlled by the
executive than by the legislature. In addition, the concentration of power in the hands
of the executive is fostered by the inherent advantages of a unitary leader relative to a
multimember legislature and by the rise of the modern media, which tends to focus
attention on a single charismatic and powerful leader rather than on relatively faceless
members of Congress or parliament.
This part of Buckleys book also doubles as a fascinating comparative history of the
three countries constitutional development. In an insightful analysis of the Constitutional
Convention of 1787, he shows that many of the Founding Fathers, including James
Madison, actually wanted a more tightly constrained president selected by Congress
rather than the separate executive that ultimately emerged. Ironically, the parliamentary
executive established by the framers of the Canadian political system in 1867 may in some
ways be closer to Madisons vision than that which was created in the United States.
Although the growth of executive power is a common feature of all three
nations governments, Buckley argues that parliamentary systems have coped with
the resulting challenges better than Americas separation-of-powers system has.
Because a parliamentary majority can remove a prime minister from office at any time,
it is more difficult for him to abuse his powers than for an independent president to
do so. A U.S. president can be removed from office before the end of his term only
through the cumbersome impeachment process, which Buckley derides as largely
ineffective. As a result, Buckley claims, American presidents are more able than British
and Canadian prime ministers to start unwise wars for political benefit, use the
bureaucracy to persecute political opponents, and commit a variety of other sins.
Presidential abuses of power in the U.S. system are also exacerbated by the fact that
the president is head of state as well as head of government and as a result enjoys
institutional prestige and relative immunity from criticism, which in Britain and
Canada is reserved for the queen.
This latter argument is probably one of Buckleys weakest. The symbolic stature
of their office has not shielded modern U.S. presidents from vitriolic attacks by
political opponents, hostile media, andmost recentlyblogs and other political
websites. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have been attacked at
least as much as any prime minister.
To further buttress his case, Buckley cites comparative data indicating that,
controlling for other variables, presidential regimes have higher levels of corruption
and lower levels of political freedom than parliamentary governments.
Although Buckley presents a formidable case for parliamentary government, there
are some flaws in both his diagnosis of the problems of executive power and his defense
of parliamentarism as the best solution. It is far from clear that the past century has
witnessed a growth of executive power relative to legislative power as opposed to a vast
expansion of all forms of government power relative to that of the private sector.
Modern executives wield much greater power than their eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century predecessors. But the same is true of modern legislatures. It is
Congress, not the White House, that today spends nearly one-quarter of U.S. gross
domestic product and regulates everything from light bulbs to toilet flow. Although
Buckley notes that the president has considerable discretion over some types of
spending, by far the largest items in the federal budget are entitlement programs such
as Medicare and Social Security, which allocate funds through formulas that leave
little room for executive discretion.
The power of the judicial branch has also expanded over time. Todays federal
judiciary decides an enormous range of cases that have tremendous impact on the
lives, freedom, and economic well-being of much of the population.
In some cases, Buckley conflates the authority of the executive branch as a whole
with that of the president as an individual. For example, he emphasizes that the
executive branch now has more than 2.5 million civilian employees. But he doesnt
note that the vast majority of them are career civil servants who are almost impossible
for the president to fire; indeed, it is often difficult for him to even demote them or
cut their pay. Federal bureaucrats enjoy such protections thanks to laws enacted by
Congressan important means by which the legislature has constrained presidential
power. Even as the power of the executive branch as a whole has expanded, the
presidents ability to exercise personal control over it has declined.
Buckley also makes much of the presidents ability to control the powerful
U.S. military and to involve it in conflicts without congressional approval. Such
criticisms have some merit. But presidents still routinely seek congressional authorization
for large-scale conflicts likely to result in substantial casualties, as in the
case of the Vietnam War, the two Iraq wars, and the invasion of Afghanistan after
the September 11 attacks. When presidents initiate conflicts without congressional
approval, they try hard to keep them short and to avoid the use of ground troops
and significant U.S. casualties, as Clinton did with Kosovo and as Obama did with
Libya and possibly wants to do with the current campaign against the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria.
Although Buckley is right to point out shortcomings of the impeachment process,
he may underrate its effectiveness. Three out of forty-four presidents have either
been impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) or forced to resign under threat
of impeachment (Richard Nixon). The incidence of impeachment or serious threat
thereof may not be much lower than the likelihood that a given British or Canadian
prime minister may be forced out by his party or lose a vote of no confidence.
Buckleys defense of parliamentary government also has problematic elements.
Advocates of parliamentary systems have traditionally been left-liberals who argue
that they make it easier to enact new legislation, thereby facilitating the growth of
centralized regulation of the economy and a large welfare state. Buckley, by contrast,
is a generally pro-free-market conservative. It is striking that in this book he mostly
avoids engagement with the conventional left-wing case for parliamentarism. If the
latter case is correct, his own position is at least partially undermined. As Buckley
recognizes, increasing economic regulation and welfare state spending tend to also
increase executive power.
Economists Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini (The Economic Effects of Constitutions [Cambridge,Mass.: MIT Press, 2003]) find that presidential regimes on average
have significantly lower levels of government spending than parliamentary systems.
More government spending means more power for both legislature and executive as
well as greater difficulty in constraining the sorts of abuses of power Buckley fears.
Like many other critics of U.S. separation of powers, Buckley laments the gridlock
created by divided government, which indeed sometimes causes problems. But
that very gridlock also imposes constraints on executive power that are difficult to
replicate in a parliamentary system. When Congress is controlled by a different party
from the one that holds the White House, the result is lower levels of federal spending,
more hearings investigating possible abuses of executive power, and the enactment
of more detailed laws that leave less room for executive discretion. By contrast,
a parliamentary prime minister is usually also the leader of the dominant party in the
legislature, which is therefore less likely to impose tight constraints on his power or to
investigate his abuses of it.
Buckley emphasizes that divided government makes it difficult to repeal or
modify bad legislation, a disadvantage he contends outweighs the benefit of being
able to prevent the enactment of more harmful legislation in the first place. But the
institutionalization of harmful government programs and regulations often makes
them difficult to repeal even in parliamentary governments, as demonstrated in the
difficulty that many European states have experienced in trying to pare back entitlement
programs and labor regulations that have resulted in serious fiscal problems and
chronically high unemployment.
In addition, Buckley downplays one important way in which prime ministers can
accumulate greater personal power than presidents can: they often stay in office far
longer. Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics for eleven years, and Tony Blair
for ten. Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada for fifteen of sixteen years
between 1968 and 1984, and Brian Mulroney for nine straight years. Such dominance
was furthered by the prime ministers ability to time elections to coincide with
favorable points in the business cycle.
By contrast, the Constitution bans American presidents from serving for more
than eight years, and the last year or two of a presidents second term is usually a
lame duck period during which the incumbents political leverage declines. Other
things being equal, longer tenure in office leads to greater concentration of power.
Although Buckley correctly points out that the average tenure of a modern British or
Canadian prime minister is about the same as that of the average president, the
possibility of very long tenures still creates a dangerous risk of concentration of
power, especially since prime ministers with long tenures are far from uncommon.
Buckleys quantitative evidence on political freedom and corruption is not quite
as strong as he suggests. Many of the results are driven by regimes that have little or
no democracy. In such governments, formal constitutional allocations of power may
not matter much because the ruling dictator or oligarchy often wields power in ways
separate from the official authority attached to the office.
More significantly, Buckleys comparative analysis largely omits fascist and Communist
states. Most Communist governments were officially parliamentary, with only
a figurehead president. The true leader of the executive was usually the chairman
or general secretary of the ruling party, who could in principle (and sometimes, as Nikita Khrushchev found out, in reality) be removed by other party leaders at any
time. He was thus accountable to the party in some of the same ways as democratic
parliamentary leaders. The short-lived democratic Provisional Government that the
Bolsheviks overthrew in 1917 was also a parliamentary system. If Vladimir Putins
Russia counts as a failure of presidentialism (as Buckley argues it does), the much
greater horrors of Lenins and Stalins Russia may cut the other way.
Both Hitler and Mussolini rose to power as parliamentary executives, which
offices they managed to convert into absolute dictatorships. Hitler actually failed in
his efforts to win election to the Weimar Republics relatively weak presidency, but
managed to become chancellor through parliamentary deal making. His rise to absolute
power might not have occurred had Germany had a presidential regime.
If modern governments are ranked by the scale of mass murders and other human
rights abuses they have committed, most of the worst were Communist and fascist
governments that emerged from failing parliamentary regimes, were officially organized
as parliamentary systems themselves, or both. It is in many ways unfair to blame
parliamentarism for the horrors of communism and Nazism. After all, these regimes
rose to power in nations that were undemocratic to begin with or had only weakly
established democracies. But, if so, it is similarly unfair to blame presidentialism for the
evils of various Latin American and African despotisms where the dictator holds the
position of president rather than prime minister or party chairman.
None of my analysis proves that presidential regimes are necessarily superior to
parliamentary ones. They certainly are not optimal for all nations at all times. There
are also important variations between different types of presidential regimes and
parliamentary regimes as well as between the two categories themselves. Buckley
suggests several possible reforms for paring back presidential power without switching
to a parliamentary system
The Once and Future King may be the best recent statement of the case for the superiority
of parliamentary government. But presidentialism has important advantages of its
own. The debate between advocates of these perennial alternatives will surely continue.