Have you looked at ever-increasing executive power and ever atrophying legislative competency and thought, “There’s got to be a better way?” Well boy howdy, let me say I have just the thing for you — separative semi-presidentialism.
Before we move onto what separative semi-presidentialism means, some explanations are in order, namely, the forms of representative democracy. There are three basic forms of representative democracy: parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential. These systems are tied together by three common elements: a head of state, a head of government, and a legislature. Differences in the powers and selection/election of all three components vary wildly.
Parliamentary democracy is the most common form of representative democracy, a category which contains both republican and constitutional monarchical flavors. The cabinet, that holds executive power, is led by a prime minister and formed by a majority of the legislature. Usually, the cabinet only requires the support of the lower house. (Examples include the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, etc.) The head of state (whether a monarch or a president) selects an individual to form a government (usually said individual is the leader of the largest party after an election). Then, head of government and their government must then be approved by and maintain the confidence of the legislature. As both the legislature and executive are intertwined, the primary driving force of politics is legislative majorities, with limited countermeasures outside of votes on the legislative floor.
The second most common form of representative democracy is presidential, where executive power is invested in a president — who serves as both head of state and government. The president is elected independently of the legislature. Most presidential systems have no Prime Ministers (e.g., the United States), but there are exceptions (e.g. South Korea where the PM is de facto Vice-President). The presidential system is more likely to be subject to extended political gridlock than the parliamentary model, because of the separation of powers.
Finally, there is semi-presidentialism — a mix between parliamentary and presidential: semi-presidential includes for an executive president and a head of government (generally a prime minister). There are two sub-forms of semi-presidentialism. In the first, where after the president appoints a government that only the legislature can dismiss (e.g., France). And in the second where the president can dismiss the government at will and replace it with a new government (e.g., Taiwan). One peculiarity to semi-presidentialism is “cohabitation,” wherein the President is of one party, but that party does not have the support to form a government in the legislature. Thus, the president generally is forced to appoint the leader of the opposition as PM. This system allows a united government to implement a policy programme and still provides for divided government to slow controversial measures.
So, what is separative semi-presidentialism? The name is misleading because it does not use semi-presidentialism as its basis; instead, it is a form of presidentialism. It is a system wherein executive power is invested in the president, but that the legislature appoints a chief legislator independently of the executive branch. It is separative semi-presidentialism because it is a natural culmination of the separation of powers where there is a second, but not secondary national leader, who is neither head of government nor head of state.
I have predicated this theory on the American system of government. And like most great American things, it is imported from abroad but hybridized at home — with notable influences from the French and German systems of government. Separative Semi-Presidentialism is intended to weaken executive power by granting the leadership of the national legislature a national mandate, and national responsibility.
Currently, congressional leadership is subject to pressure rising from their constituencies and their caucus; there is no national pressure point. National pressure must boil up through the legislative caucus to the legislative leader, creating a layer of political insulation from accountability. Further, legislative leaders may have to bend over backward to please their constituents at the expense of the national good.
This Chief Legislator of the United States or CLOTUS (a place holder name until I can decide between Chancellor of the United States and Speaker of Congress) is analogous to the Speaker of the House — but with authority and membership in both chambers of Congress. CLOTUS’s powers derive from two sources — accelerating legislation to the floor and threatening elections.
The first set of powers would center on CLTOUS, moving certain legislation to the floor, around committees. This is intended to prevent legislation from being tied up in committees in perpetuity. The floor should be the final arbiter of legislation. Think of this power as a unilateral discharge petition. (A discharge petition is the current mechanism by which a majority of the House can force a vote to the floor.) This power is a congressional carrot that gives leadership the ability to aid, but not hinder the passage of legislation, as opposed to the next power, the congressional stick — the threat of election.
CLOTUS must also have some authority to force elections, especially in the face of failure to provide supply (a government shutdown). Allowing leadership to apply pressure to the electoral connection directly is vital to both maintain discipline and accountability. Congressional Members’ primary motivations are 1) getting re-elected 2) amassing influence in Congress 3) passing ‘good’ policy, but the second and third depend on the first. The threat of facing an angry electorate is a powerful inducement to bring rogue legislators back on side. Three main scenarios that would require the threat of calling a snap election are 1) the failure of mandatory appropriation legislation, 2) the failure of critical policy-programmatic legislation, and 3) the loss of confidence in CLOTUS. Snap elections should be rare but are sometimes necessary when gridlock becomes dangerously entrenched. Slowing the levers of government is sometimes necessary, but a government brought to a total standstill threatens the very trust and standing of all future governments. In such cases, the legislature’s mandate must be renewed.
With these two broad portfolios of powers, the chief legislator is, in short, a congressional cat herder. A leader tasked with ensuring that a popularly backed legislative programme is enacted, that mandatory spending is authorized in a timely and orderly manner, and necessary crises that require legislative action are resolved. Currently, because Congress is perfectly bicameral, there is no one singularly responsible for the good conduct of the legislature on the whole. The buck does not stop, so it gets passed to-and-fro like a besuited game of hot potato.
There are numerous threads left hanging with this proposal. There is more detail to be added about the manner, nature, procedure about a CLOTUS’s powers, about the committee system, about further offices of legislative leadership, about the relationship between the CLOTUS and the President, and how snap elections would work alongside scheduled presidential elections. These are intentional gaps because this intended to serve as an structural apéritif.
However, I will address two hanging threads in this piece and briefly touch on one more. 1) the election of the chief legislator, 2) intra-legislative relations, and 3) the relationship between the president and the chief legislator. Undergirding separative semi-presidentialism is two necessary structural reforms: proportional representation and some variety of imperfect bicameralism (i.e., including functional bicameralism).
The ideal election method of a chief legislator necessitates proportional representation — preferably under Mixed Member Proportional (and potentially MMP with ranking). MMP consist of two votes, one for a constituency (think traditional congressional district) and one for a party. The vote for the party determines how many seats that party gets in the legislature. Those proportions are first filled with any constituency seats and then followed by a party list (there are more rules, but I am just painting the broad strokes). Under Separative Semi-Presidentialism the party vote would expressly count as a vote for the CLOTUS candidate of said party, a mimic ballot. The party with the most votes would then have the first chance to form a majority (assuming under PR that absolute majority governments will be rare). If the first party cannot form a majority, then the second party can attempt to for a majority. Afterwards, any party can attempt to form majority. If no party can, then fresh elections must be held.
Perfect bicameralism poses some logistical question — if the second chamber is on the same footing as the first, where should CLOTUS draw their confidence? The chief legislator should draw confidence solely from the lower house. Still, as things currently stand, perfect bicameralism could easily lead several constitutional cliffhangers. That is why an alternative model, such as the one proposed in “A Better Bicameralism” would be preferable. That piece proposes a system of modified imperfect bicameralism, where the lower chamber is the superior and legislation-oriented chamber; while the upper chamber is the inferior and oversight-oriented chamber. If there is to be a chief legislator, the second chamber (the lower house) must come first.
Now, what of the president and the executive branch? The over-accrual of executive power is a dangerous condition, and the best salve is an active legislature. Congress is disadvantaged when negotiating with the executive because Congress must negotiate between itself, its chambers, before it can negotiate with the executive. The combination of a chief legislator backed by a functional bicameral legislature provides the president with an equal opposite with equal national standing. Further, an important crux of separative semi-presidentialism must be the readoption of the legislative veto to give the legislature an effective means to regulate executive action. If this legislative veto should be vested by the congress-in-whole, one chamber, or the chief legislator themselves, is up to further development. The CLOTUS serves as the guiding arm of national policy development, while the chief executive serves as the guiding arm of national policy implementation. Or to be poetic, the chief legislator is the nation’s smith, the chief executive the nation’s swordbearer.
To close, separative semi-presidentialism is a system that seeks to recognize and formalize legislative leadership’s place in directing the legislative process. This is something that exists already today in the United States, in an especially unorthodox manner and effectively jury-rigged manner. However, current legislative leadership lacks both the mandate and the intra-institutional ability to effectively make the United States Congress the focal point and beating heart of the public policy process. If the United States is to be a nation of laws, not men, then the national law-making body must be the most powerful and active branch of government.