Under divided government, the legislature has an incentive to limit the power of the president and the executive bureaucracy he controls. That is one of the reasons why comparative evaluations of the effects of constitutions find that presidential systems have smaller governments and lower levels of government spending than parliamentary ones.
In a parliamentary system, by contrast, whichever party or coalition has a majority of the legislature also automatically controls the executive. That leads to greater legislative toleration for abuses of power, and higher levels of government spending and intervention. Frank is right to suggest that the president, as an individual, is more difficult to depose than a prime minister. But the executive as a whole is subject to stronger constraints in a presidential system than a parliamentary one. In addition, an independent president can serve as a check on legislative power. That isn’t possible in system where control of the legislature and the executive is automatically concentrated in the same hands.
Frank overstates the extent to which US presidents have actually escaped legislative constraint. It is true that none has ever been forcibly removed. But one (Nixon) was forced to resign to avoid impeachment and conviction, and two others (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) were seriously damaged by impeachment proceedings that stopped just short of conviction – in Clinton’s case for a relatively minor offense. Numerous other presidents have been reduced to “lame duck” status by a combination of unpopularity and congressional hostility.
It is true, as Frank notes, that the US has fallen behind several parliamentary democracies in the Cato Institute economic freedom index in recent years. But it is also true that the US was consistently in the top two to five nations on that list from 1980 until the early to mid-2000s, usually trailing only such mini-states as Singapore and Hong Kong. The US achieved that level, despite the fact that many of the other leading contenders were small democracies that could economize on defense spending in part by free-riding on US expenditures. Given the strong US performance in the index over a long period of time, it is unlikely that its recent decline was due to presidentialism, which was present throughout that period.
Frank’s analogy of the president to a monarch has some merit, but in a different way than he intends. The president is far from being an absolute monarch like Louis XIV or the czar of Russia. He does, however, have similarities to George III and other constitutional monarchs who were tightly constrained by parliament and found it difficult to undertake major policy initiatives parliament disapproved of. The oppressive policies the American colonists revolted against were mostly instituted by the parliamentary government of Lord North, rather than the king.
Frank also argues that presidential systems unduly insulate the president from criticism because he is the symbolic leader of the nation, as well as the chief executive:
Finally, there’s the difference between a parliamentary system that separates the head of state (the queen) from the head of government (the prime minister) and a presidential system that unites both in the president. Politicians should be figures of ridicule and not of royal reverence.
This concern has theoretical merit. But, in practice, most Americans are easily able to separate out the symbolic aspects of the presidency from the president’s role as policymaker and partisan leader. The latter is routinely the object of condemnation and ridicule, even as the former enjoys a large measure of bipartisan respect. Certainly, it’s hard to argue that the last three or four presidents – including Obama – have managed to avoid widespread public criticism and ridicule, to say nothing of nasty partisan attacks that go far beyond that.
Despite these reservations about his thesis, I actually agree with Frank that recent presidents have accumulated excessive power and that Congress should do more to rein in the executive. But most of that growth is not the result of a special defect of the presidency, but rather the consequence of the more general growth of government. Congress’ power has increased enormously over the last century, as well, to the point where it spends some one quarter of US GDP, for example. Executive and legislative power have similarly expanded under most parliamentary regimes. In parliamentary systems, as in the US, governments often engage in massive electronic surveillance of their citizens, with little or no oversight. In both systems, unelected bureaucrats often make more law than legislatures.
None of this proves that presidentialism is always superior to parliamentary government. As I explained in an earlier critique of Frank’s argument, there are situations where it is not. But the claim that presidential systems uniquely turn the executive into an unconstrained monarch is ultimately unpersuasive.