Questions about US politics from an Aussie

Discussion in 'Politics' started by m22au, Nov 2, 2010.

  1. m22au


    As an Australian I'm trying to get a better understanding of US politics.

    I've done some reading; especially regarding the separation of power between the legislature and executive.

    In the eyes of this observer, it is the Congress that has the power to pass legislation. On the other hand the most powerful thing the president can do is declare war. So in times of peace, the president's role seems to be less significant than that of the Congress.

    Can someone explain the relevance / media focus of the President and Presidential election campaigns, versus the Congress?

    For example, in 1996, the Republicans maintained control of the House, despite Clinton winning another Presidential term. Why all the focus on the presidential race when the opposing party maintained control of the House, and therefore the ability to make legislation?

    Please note that I am not attempting to make fun of the US system, nor implying that the Australian structure is better than the US structure. I am just trying to understand the difference between the two.

    The background to my question is found below.

    ** Australia **

    In Australia, there is little or no separation between these two branches: the political party with the majority in the House of Representatives passes legislation (to be approved by the Senate).

    The head of government (Prime Minister) and other ministers (eg. Treasury, Finance, Education, Health) are all members of Parliament, and almost all are members of the House of Representatives.

    ** USA **

    Whereas in the US, there is a much stronger separation between the executive (lead by the President) and the legislative branch of government. My understanding is that the President is not a member of Congress, and therefore does not have power to vote on legislation.

    ** Further examples **

    In 1994, when Clinton was president, the Republican party took control of the house. Then in 1996, Clinton was re-elected, yet the Republican party won control of the house.

    Why was the media so focused on the 1996 presidential campaign, during a time of less war than the early 1990s or the early 2000s, when it is the Congress that sets legislation?

  2. 377OHMS


    Congress passes legislation but then the Executive must sign that legislation into law. The President can veto (not sign) a bill that is sent to him and that bill does not become law so there is a perceived deadlock.

    The President does not have a line-item veto however, he must sign or not sign legislation as-passed in whole. Congress can use that to attach unrelated bills together that the President must give thumbs up or thumbs down on.
  3. m22au


    Thanks for your response and the information about veto power.

    While I understand how that works in theory, does it happen often in practice?

    Maybe a different angle is this:

    Reading the Wikipedia article about the 2008 presidential campaign, it seems that the economy was a big election issue.

    How is this relevant to the election of a president, given it is the Congress that passes legislation relating to government income and expenditure?


    By way of background, the only example in Australia of significant veto power is this:
  4. Vetoes aren't that uncommon. Attention then shifts to whether there's a two-thirds majority to override. That of course will depend on the issue and the politics of the issue, and how popular or not the President is.
  5. It is important to remember, however, that the Constitution does not envision a master-and-servant relationship between the President and Congress. The framers of the document took care to create a system of government in which there is a balance of powers and extensive checks and balances between them. In fact, the framers actually gave more specific powers to Congress, for they were wary that a too-powerful President would repeat the wrongs that the King of England had inflicted on the colonies.

    The President is entitled to recommend legislation, but his success at seeing his agenda enacted depends to a considerable degree on his skill at reaching out to members of Congress and persuading them to follow his lead. The President often sees Congress as an obstacle to be overcome, and always has to calculate how his proposals will play out with Congress. He cannot dictate to Congress what he wants, and faces a huge task in communicating with Congress because of its size and diversity. One instrument of persuasion is the presidential veto, and sometimes with an overtly combative stance, a President can bend Congress to his will. But typically, fostering a sense of cooperation and partnership with Congress building coalitions of support — is the path to presidential success.

    These days, we are accustomed to the notion of a President who is active across a broad front of legislative issues. But until the 20th Century, this was not the usual model of presidential behavior. Before then, more often than not, Congress was the driving force in American government.

    In the 19th Century, prominent congressmen such as Kentucky's Henry Clay were titans on the Washington stage for decades, while Presidents came and went. For instance, when Indiana's William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840, it was widely understood that he would look to Senator Clay for decisions on most important matters.

    But in the first half of the 20th Century, Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt created the model of the expansive, activist modern presidency. To members of Congress, the President now looms large in the legislative process. He sets the national agenda, and has behind him the vast knowledge and expertise of the federal bureaucracy. In this media-driven age, he speaks with one voice, as against the many of Congress, making it easier for him to command the attention of the cameras. Using the bully pulpit, the President can go over the heads of Congress and make his case directly to the American people.

    The relationship between Congress and the President lies at the very core of our system of government, and, under our Constitution, tension and struggle between these rivals for power is inevitable. A democracy without conflict is not a democracy. The framers did not set out to promote gridlock between President and Congress, but they did intend that conflicting opinions in society should be considered carefully before government takes action.

    It is a dynamic relationship, changing with every issue, every event. Sometimes it is cordial and cooperative. Sometimes it is hostile and polarized. And sometimes it is both things on the same day, shifting with the issue under consideration.

    Ours is clearly not a system set up for quick, efficient action, and sorting out who has the real power between the President and Congress in a host of matters is not easy. But more often than not, Congresses and Presidents find a way to work with each other, cooperating where possible, and the nation's business gets done. The relationship between President and Congress, while at times tumultuous, in the end safeguards the people from corruption of power and abuse of authority - by either side. It is a system that works - not perfectly, to be sure, but certainly adequately.
  6. m22au


    Thanks to everyone for your responses.

    It's an interesting* contrast for me. In the US the president is separate from congress, whereas in Australia the Prime Minister is a member of the House of Representatives, nearly always the leader of their political party, and therefore has a massive influence in setting the agenda for introducing legislation to the House.

    * I can see advantages and disadvantages to both systems.
  7. You welcome , now chuck some prawns on the barbie and go fetch 2 sheilas .:D
  8. One correction. The President does NOT have the power to declare war under the Constitution. Only the congress does.

    Obviously, various presidents have found ways to weasel around this fundamental protection. They say it is an emergency or that it isn't a war but something else, etc. Usually congress doesn;t want to make a direct issueout of the dispute.

    Another misconception held by most Americans is that the Judicial Branch is above the other two branches. Of course, the Judiciary does act like it is, but the Constitution makes the three branches co-equal and in fact gives the congress and president numerous ways to discipline an out of control judiciary, like we have now. For example, President Bush could have simply ignored the Supreme Court decisions on terrorist detainees on the basis that the Excutive has sole authority to conduct war and diplomatic functions. Congress could have impeached him over it or tried to impose lesser methods to coerce him, but there is nothing the Judiciary could have done.