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Similar systems or constitutional contrast? The legislative process in the UK and the USA. UK Parliament Week 2020
The Political Studies Association is a proud partner of UK Parliament Week. During #UKPW the PSA will be sharing a number of blogs written by teachers and students of politics. UK Parliament Week is an annual festival that engages people from across the UK with their UK Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved. For more information click here.
The legislative process sounds complicated, right? Well, unfortunately it really is. One thing that makes legislative processes difficult to understand is because they are fairly distinctive in every political system. Even liberal democracies can have quite different ways to arrive at the laws that will govern their societies. To help get a bit of insight we will look here at the way legislation is made in the UK and the USA. These political systems can be used to highlight certain similarities and differences, and to give us an idea about how laws are made. What follows is a tiny part of the picture, but it is a good starting place to consider these two systems.
In the UK, the government in Westminster starts off with a legislative agenda that covers the key laws they want to make. This sets the tone for parliamentary discussion and reflects the priorities of the governing party. Parliament has two parts: The House of Commons, which is elected by the public every five years (ish); and The House of Lords, which has some hereditary peers, some religious leaders, and some political appointees in it. Both parts of the legislature debate potential laws (known as bills) to see what problems can be found and what solutions can be offered. This debating process is one of the important ways that bills are scrutinised by parliament. Once the discussions have taken place, there is a vote to see whether a majority of parliamentarians want the bill to become a new law. If the bill survives its journey through the two houses it goes to the Monarch.
Once Parliament has discussed a bill and backed it then the Monarch has to give Royal Assent, which is a fancy way of saying ‘okay, that’s a law now’. In theory, a Monarch could refuse to grant assent to a piece of legislation, but in practice that doesn’t happen. No king or queen has refused to give royal assent since 1707 when Queen Anne refused to allow a piece of legislation that would have given weapons to a militia group in Scotland. While Queen Elizabeth II still formally gives assent to legislation, it is highly unlikely that we would see her veto a bill that had the support of Parliament.
In the USA, their version of Parliament is called Congress. Like the UK it has two different parts (the fancy term for this is bi-cameral legislature by the way). The equivalent of The House of Commons is called The House of Representatives and the upper house is called The Senate, which is a bit like The House of Lords. The House of Representatives is elected every two years, but The Senate moves a little slower, Senators serve six-year terms.
Like in the UK, bills need to be discussed and agreed upon in both parts of the legislature to become law. Once bills have been debated and passed by Congress, they go to the President to be signed off. This sounds like Royal assent, right? Well, yes there are similarities, but the difference is that a US President plays a much more hands-on role in the political process than a Monarch does in the UK. Also, a President is far more likely to use their power of veto. For instance, Donald Trump has vetoed eight bills during his presidency. The last time was earlier this year when the President vetoed a bill called the Iran War Powers Resolution. The bill was designed to ensure that the President would have to consult Congress before using military force against Iran. Donald Trump didn’t like that idea and used his Presidential powers to prevent it from taking effect.
So, what’s the difference?
So, it seems that these two systems are actually quite similar. Both have a bi-cameral legislature that debates and votes on bills. Both then elevate potential laws to the head of state who needs to give a nod before the bill can become law. Despite this, there are some really important differences though. For instance, in the UK, the executive (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) are also members of Parliament. They are usually the leading figures in the party that wins a parliamentary election. This means that generally speaking, the executive will have a majority in parliament enabling them to win votes and get stuff done.
In the US, the executive (the President and Cabinet) sit outside Congress. This can mean that a President can win an election, but find that the voters give the other party a majority in Congress. Right now, Donald Trump is a Republican president, his party commands a majority in the Senate, but the Democrats are the biggest group in the House of Representatives. This is not uncommon in the US system and it can mean an awful lot of extra wrangling and negotiation if bills are to make their way onto the statute book. Unfortunately, we can’t begin to consider the true levels of complexity across these processes in this mini-blog. This is just a tiny taster to get you thinking about the legislative process in different places. Your mission now is to find out more!
Gavin Hart (University of Huddersfield)
Gavin Teaches Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield and works as Communications Officer for the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments. To learn more about the group see their website https://psaparliaments.org/ or follow them on Twitter @psa_parl