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Compare and contrast the powers of US presidents and UK prime ministers
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DescriptionCompare and contrast the powers of US presidents and UK prime ministers
Within their domestic systems, the Prime Minister and President are both the “chief executive”. They are, therefore, the head of policy implementation within their countries and in this respect have similar roles. In the UK, though, by constitutional convention, the Prime Minister shares this role with his cabinet as ‘first among equals’. The President does not. As the constitution states, “the executive power shall be vested in a President”, not a President and his cabinet. Even so, the President uses a cabinet, which is narrowly provided for by the US constitution (article 2, section 2). This, and recent Prime Ministers’ (Tony Blair) apparent erosion of cabinet power, would suggest that chief executive power is not restrained any more by cabinet in the UK than in the US. Furthermore, when we look beyond the executive function of the President and Prime Minister, the Prime Minister’s domestic powers appear to extend further and further ahead of those of the President.
One of the most striking features of US politics is the regulation and interdependence each branch of government; and the Executive Office is in no way exempt from this principle. The President makes Supreme Court nominations, subject to approval by the Senate. The President can sign treaties, subject to ratification by the Senate. The President is ‘Commander in Chief’ of the armed forces, whose funding comes from Congress. The president is also chief legislator, but any legislation must be passed by Congress, and any veto may be overridden by a determined-enough Congress (as shown by the 2007 override of George Bush’s water bill veto). Consequently, the President has very little independence, despite being head of state.
By contrast, the Prime Minister has a great deal of autonomy within UK government, and is subject to far fewer checks than the President. The Royal prerogative powers give a Prime Minister extensive independence; to declare war, appoint ministers and civil servants and to call elections, among other things. Powers of patronage are particularly important, as they provide a carrot for a Prime Minister to dangle before potentially rebellious MPs. Due to its fairly undemocratic nature, the royal prerogative power to declare war would be dangerous to use, and this is probably evidenced by Gordon Brown’s willingness to surrender this power in attempt to reform the royal prerogatives.
Even so, it is not in the royal prerogative powers that a Prime Minister’s true might lies. It is in his combined role as a Member of Parliament, chief legislator, and commander of a whipped and incentivised majority within the House of Commons. Indeed, if, like James Callaghan, a Prime Minister is not in this incredibly strong position, he or she will not be Prime Minister for much longer. Therefore any incumbent Prime Minister must be in a position of incredible legislative strength compared to the US President. In practice, this means that a Prime Minister can force through almost any legislation, and therefore control British statute.
A President has no such ability, at least not consistently. There is no guarantee that the President’s party will occupy a majority in either House, let alone both Houses of Congress, as demonstrated by the current scenario. Even if it did, party discipline -and partisanship in general- is far weaker in the USA, not least because of the comparative lack of ‘carrot and stick’ factors to compel legislators to vote on party lines. Although by convention presidential legislative initiatives tend not to be blocked in Congress, there is no guarantee of this. One must also consider that the heavy amendment which secure presidential bills undergo may well distort the original bill considerably, following the influence of committees that are far more powerful than those in the UK.
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