Two Great Legislatures in Chaos

Two Great Legislatures in Chaos


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Rarely if ever have two of the most vital and vibrant legislative bodies appeared to be facing such internal predicaments as they do today. Both the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress are being challenged and seem to be in a state of very different but equally compelling crisis.

Congress left town on Friday for the St. Patrick’s Day, mid-March, recess but not before asserting its constitutional prerogative over the power of the purse. Both chambers challenged President Trump’s decision invoking a non-existent national emergency to justify his reallocating appropriated funds for the construction of a larger than authorized wall along America’s southern border. Although there are dim prospects that Congress will succeed in over-riding the President’s veto when they return from their recess, this presidential challenge to Congress’ constitutional authority undoubtedly will face a long, legal battle ahead in the Courts.

President Trump does not believe in the separation of powers doctrine or as Richard Neustadt, the great scholar on the American Presidency referred to it, “separate institutions sharing powers.” Trump certainly does not respect divided Government. Leaving aside his psychological problems with permitting anyone to win a fight with him, the President continues to challenge the power of the legislature at every turn; especially now with the Democratically controlled House’s resurgent exercise of investigatory and oversight powers.

On the other side of the pond, the Mother of all Parliaments has been stuck for some time in an equally serious and fundamental fight created by the battle over Brexit. This debate has torn apart the entire country, the ruling Government, and both major political parties in the United Kingdom.  Having held a referendum in which the voters called for Britain to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Government have failed to negotiate a plan to leave that is acceptable to both the British Parliament and the European Union. Since passage of the referendum two years ago, there has been a national election, and repeated votes in the Parliament over the modalities of how the exit should be achieved. Now, two weeks before the exit was to have been completed, the Government remains no closer to adopting a plan which is acceptable to all parties in Europe as well as the Parliament. May is clutching at straws that she can cobble together the votes to proceed with a neat extraction or at least an extension to create a consensus by which date she will have completed her deliberations.

The people are unhappy; the Tory Party is not united; and, thanks to the growing disarray with the Labour Party, the most likely course appears to be another general referendum. Whether this will be followed by a new election, or an agreement, or the Prime Minister merely relinquishing party leadership remains to be seen. What is clear is that for a Parliament which prides itself in party discipline, there rarely has been such a total lack of allegiance to the party leader in the House of Commons. The British have been witnessing a legislative body which remains very strong in its traditional form but lacking in its ability to function.

The Prime Minister may lead the Parliament, but Theresa May has been operating in an environment with so many “free votes” that she is unable to maneuver her Government. Donald Trump lacks both the constitutional and functional power, but his party lacks the political will to effectively challenge him, so he conducts the affairs of Government as if he is the sole source of power. This is hardly a shining hour for either of these venerable institutions.


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