Presidential Government

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Presidential Government

Centrality of the president

Separateness of Congress

Modern presidential–congressional relations

Other presidential systems


The term “presidential government” came into use in English journalism before the American Civil War as a shorthand expression for the gov ernmental system of the former colonies, the United States. Walter Bagehot so used it in Th English Constitution (1865–1867), begun while Lincoln was still president, to draw the contrast with his own term for the British system, “cabinet government.” A generation later, in America, Woodrow Wilson assayed Bagehot’s “realism” and deliberately rejected Bagehot’s term for the United States; Wilson called his own book Congressiona Government (1885). Time and American developments, however, have vindicated Bagehot’s usage rather than Wilson’s. On both sides of the Atlantic the term “presidential government” is commonly employed today to characterize the American system. It is sometimes used loosely, as a generic term applying to all governments with elective chief executives styled “president.” This looser usage is of doubtful value analytically, for reasons that will be discussed below.

Centrality of the president

The government of the United States is “presidential” in the sense that its presidency occupies the vital, central place among public institutions at the national level. This office serves at once as the central source of judgment and initiative and as the only object of national elections in a gov ernment legitimated by popular sovereignty. An merican president also is the embodiment of sovereignty in external relations. He is, besides, the government’s chief spokesman in internal relations ith interest groups and citizens at large. A presient of the United States both reigns and rules.

This key position is the product partly of cstitutional provisions, partly of accreted precedents and modern practice. The constitution of 178 conferred upon the president a number of positions of advantage in the governmental system. First among these is security of tenure for a four-year period with removal only by congressional impeachment, a cumbersome procedure which has only been attempted once, in 1867. Second is indirect popular election through the medium of the electoral college. Third is command of the armed forces and the conduct of diplomacy, traditional royal prerogatives vested in the presidency by former British subjects. Fourth is an assortment of specific rights or duties bearing on the conduct of public administration, most important of which is the right to name department heads and the duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Fifth is a limited prerogative in legislation: the qualified veto power and the right to recommend.

Building on these constitutional foundations, personalities in office and surrounding circumstances have united to enlarge the presidency, reshaping and increasing its positions of advantage relative to other institutions in the system. The contemporary presidency is the product of a long accretion.

In the first century under the constitution the practice of three presidents particularly shaped the character of the presidential office. Washington lent it something of his personal prestige and carefully set precedents to mark it as the highest place in government. His precedents were frequently ignored, but the impact of his tenure was never wholly lost. Jackson dramatized the office’s independent popular connection, and his renomination by a national convention of state parties (with electors pledged to the convention ’s nominee) proved a lasting and important innovation. Thereafter the nominating process made a president’s election virtually direct, gave him an independent claim upon the nation, and provided him with an independent power base in politics—the national party. Lincoln, faced by civil war, invented the “war power,” juxtaposing his position as commander in chief with his duty under the “take care” clause and his constitutionally prescribed oath of office. This assertion of inherent prerogative was largely sustained by the courts and ever since has made the president something of a “constitutional dictator” in times of declared war.

Since the turn of the twentieth century enlargement of the presidency has continued and accelerated. In an age of mass communication Wilson and the two Roosevelts effectively asserted the office’s primacy as news source and as national spokesman. In the period when the United States reached a position of world power and then superpower these presidents effectively imparted modern meaning to the office’s prerogatives in defense and diplomacy. During the great depression of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt played a role in guiding the economy (including labor-management relations), a function that has been associated with the office ever since. He also took the first decisive steps to institutionalize the presidency, equipping it with staff resources of its own, both in the White House proper and in the executive office of the president—a move associated with the report of his Committee on Administrative Management, the so-called Brownlow report (U.S. President’s Committee … 1937). He and his successor innovated further by developing initiative in legislation to the point where, under Truman, a comprehensive, detailed “program of the president” became an annual feature of the legislative process, setting the congressional agenda. Under Eisenhower a routine role in implementing that agenda was recognized and regularized, with a staff for “legislative liaison” established at the White House to coordinate executive-branch pressure on Congress.

Also, in the two decades after World War ii— the first decades of the cold war and of nuclear weapons—Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, in turn, developed modern doctrine and procedure for the presidential use of force abroad without resort to declared war or the “war power.” Eisenhower and Kennedy, confronting racial conflicts and breakdowns in law enforcement, began the development of modern doctrine and procedure for the presidential use of force at home consistent with a mandate long since given by the courts to preserve internal peace in the United States.

Taken together, these positions of advantage make the presidency indispensable to the effective performance of all other governmental institutions. The national parties find their raison d’être in presidential nominations and campaigns; were there no presidency to unite them, federalism would fragment them, if indeed they existed at all. The national legislature depends upon the presidency for agendas and also for external pressure to enhance the weight of its internal party leadership. The national bureaucracy depends upon the White House for authoritative judgments and political support in struggles between departments or with Congress. The national courts depend upon the White House to sustain and spur executive enforcement. The Washington press corps looks to it for news. The national organizations of assorted private interests use the presidency’s aid (or opposition) to magnify their voices and to spur their memberships. State and local governments depend upon the presidency for preservation, ultimately, of local law and order. Apart from institutions Americans in general look toward their president (“government” personified) whenever private troubles seem to have a public source.

Separateness of Congress

But the constitution, which established the foundations for this office, also established as a fundamental principle that its positions of advantage should be matched by those of other national institutions, notably Congress. This is the principle of “separated powers”—more accurately, separated institutions sharing powers—a principle intended to insure Americans against the fates that had befallen Englishmen in the colonial period: parliamentary usurpation of the crown, quasi-military dictatorship, and royal manipulation of Parliament. Consciously or not, American constitution makers sought the balance that the English Whigs had precariously achieved in the reign of William and Mary. And even while the English were departing from that model, these constitution makers so successfully pursued it that enlargement of the presidency has produced no loss of “balance” from a still distinctly separated Congress. On the contrary, although history has altered form and terms, congressional positions of advantage continue to confront and check a president’s advantages.

The constitution granted one or both houses of Congress a share in every aspect of the presidency’s powers. The conduct of defense was qualified by making force levels and funds dependent on congressional enactment and by reserving to Congress the right to declare war. The conduct of diplomacy was qualified by reserving to the Senate “advice and consent” on treaties. The conduct of administration was severely limited by making money, authority, and departmental structure subject to specific legislation—with presidential appointees subject to Senate confirmation. In the sphere of legislation Congress was paramount, checked only by the presidential veto, which itself was subject to an overriding two-thirds vote of the two houses.

These substantial shares of powers were vested in legislators who were meant to be effectually separated from the president. Senators and members of the House of Representatives were given the advantage of fixed tenure, but with terms different in length from the chief executive’s: six years for the upper house, two years for the lower. They were advantaged further by popular election no less direct than his: congressmen were elected by citizens in state-created districts; senators, by state legislatures (a right since transferred to citizens in states). In practical application these electoral arrangements powerfully reinforce the formal independence of Congress and were responsible, above all, for the achievement of the separation of powers.

It is the politics of nomination that has kept Congress effectually separated from the White House. The constitution prescribed differing electorates for senators, representatives, and presidents. But it was silent on the means by which the candidates were to be chosen and presented to electors. And it left the regulation of elections to the states. In consequence, this gap was filled by private organizations, political parties, operating in the legal framework of each state to make the nominations for those offices. Senate and House seats as well as local posts were subject to election inside states, under rules set by state legislators, who themselves had to be nominated. Accordingly, the party organizations and their nominating processes grew up inside the states. For most intents and purposes these have remained distinctly separated by state boundaries.

Since Jackson’s presidency nominations for the White House have been arranged by confederal conventions of state party organizations, looking toward simultaneous elections in all states of partypledged electors, followed by party votes in the electoral colleges. But nominations for the Senate and the House were differently arranged, at different times, by different men, for differing electoral purposes. Once elected by their different sets of voters, the candidates who had been chosen in these different ways were separated by much more than constitutional prescription. Even when they shared a party label, they were separated by the terms of their employment and survival. So it has remained.

In the early 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the districting of legislative bodies, state and national alike, that failed to meet the test of equal representation for each voter in a state. Revision of state legislative districts and also of the districts for the House of Representatives may have a marked effect on nominating politics inside the states and may make presidential and congressional nominations less disparate. If so, the separation between the presidency and Congress should begin to shrink. But this is speculative.

Modern presidential–congressional relations

As a separated institution Congress has continued to share powers with the presidency even while the latter’s own advantages were growing. In some respects, indeed, congressional advantages have also grown. The roles originally envisaged for the two have changed considerably, especially since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, but Congress still is able to contend in many spheres with the aggrandized presidency.

Since World War ii, Congress has been least advantaged in defense and in those aspects of diplomacy related to the use of force. Buttressed by technology, a president’s advantages have overshadowed congressional prerogatives: the right to declare war has lost most of its meaning; the right to finance has not produced departures of much moment from White House proposals; the consent to treaties has not curbed White House agreements or initiatives from day to day. In other aspects of diplomacy, however, especially where economic aid comes into play, the need for funds in foreign relations has enlarged the reach of both houses of Congress. By a variety of legislative devices both houses maintain considerable control over details of foreign policy, and by conventions of “bipartisanship” leading legislators have considerable voice in White House deliberations.

In spheres of domestic policy Congress has increasingly relied on the White House to frame issues of the day and suggest solutions. The initiative in legislation has passed to the presidency. However, legislative action remains very much a matter of congressional discretion, subject to presidential influence perhaps, but not under White House control. Except in moments of grave national emergency akin to general war Congress has continuously asserted its capacity to alter, block, or disregard proposed bills from the president. White House influence is exercised, for the most part, through legislative leaders whose political dependence on a president is never absolute and rarely controlling. Even his own partisans will owe him almost nothing for their nominations and will often doubt his usefulness in their elections. His influence with them is made of less substantial stuff: popular prestige, access to publicity, party sentiment, personal favors, patronage, and “pork.” These frequently cannot suffice in controversial cases.

Congress, moreover, is increasingly adept at intervening in details of public administration. While legislative initiative shifts toward the White House, administrative “oversight” shifts toward the Capitol—a curious reversal of the literary theory of the constitution. Congressional prerogatives to authorize and finance the government departments and their programs, coupled with a long-established freedom to investigate, give both the House and Senate rights of supervision over departmental work. Since the 1930s the enormous growth of a national bureaucracy has spurred both houses to press these rights. They now are exercised unevenly but sometimes in great depth, especially at the margins of a president’s concerns, where competition from the White House offers fewest obstacles to congressional intervention.

The bureaucracy, in consequence, serves more than one master. A product of the separation between Congress and the presidency has been a separation of officialdom from both. The government departments are dependent upon both, subject in part to both, hence wholly subordinate to neither. Least of all are they subordinate to one another. “Collective responsibility” is not a meaningful concept in the United States, as applied either to department heads or to their civil servants.

The presidency’s ultimate advantage over Congress is the latter’s lack of unity. Congressional advantages in legislation and administration might suffice to tilt the balance toward the Capitol if Congress, as a unit, coordinated and applied them. But it does not. Its powers and advantages vis-á-vis the White House are dispersed among standing committees of the two congressional bodies, the Senate and the House. Powers and advantages repose for the most part in committee work, traditionally dominated by seniority leaders. These seniors become dominant by virtue of repeated nomination and election in home districts, not, except pro forma, by virtue of congressional party colleagues. Seniority is the governing principle precisely because ties of party, being home-centered, cannot sustain alternative arrangements. Committee leaders are but lightly linked by the floor leaders of each house, who owe their places to a party vote. And the two houses have no common leadership whatever (except as party leaders in each house are brought together by their party’s president).

Congress remains “a broken mirror,” as Wilson once described it, and this has proved a fatal flaw in the assertion of “congressional government.” Twice in American history Congress has preempted the center of the governmental stage, dominating policy and operations to the virtual exclusion of the White House. This happened in the decades between Jefferson and Jackson and again in the decades after the Civil War. On both occasions institutional disunity kept Congress from consolidating its pre-eminence and paved the way for a resurgent presidency, responsive to new circumstances.

The circumstances of this century have not been kind to legislatures anywhere. The United States is no exception. Pre-eminence has passed beyond the reach of Congress. Disunity now tempers its resistance, but unity could scarcely give it assured domination. The presidency has now evolved too far, in circumstances that permit of no retreat. Even so, and even with continuing fragmentation, Congress still possesses enough independence and advantages to block executive pre-eminence. In this it stands alone among the parliaments of the industrialized world. Congress remains what the constitution made it: a separated institution sharing powers with the presidency.

Presidential government in the United States is thus to be distinguished by four features: the centrality of an elective president who serves as chief of state and chief of government; the separateness of an elective legislature that engages in lawmaking and administrative management; the autonomy of a bureaucracy that is at once responsible to both; the absence of a party tie sufficient to unite both. Federalism has contributed enormously to these results; so has a written constitution interpreted by independent courts, which thus become another separated institution sharing legislative powers.

Other presidential systems

“Presidential government” as a generic term invites confusion and is analytically of little use, for with the possible exception of the Republic of the Philippines the above features have been lastingly combined in the United States alone. It is true that many Latin American republics have comparable constitutional forms, but in some of these nations, notably Mexico, the forms are rendered operable and viable by virtue of a very different feature: the preponderant political party. Elsewhere, the operative feature tends to be oligarchic bargaining, or military “guidance,” or personal dictatorship, or some combination of these, which crudely has the same effect of overcoming “separated powers.” Similarly, most of the new nations in Africa and Asia that have styled their chiefs of government as “president” rely for the same purpose on a preponderant party, military cadres, personal charisma, or all three of these.

In Europe only France under the Fifth Republic has a president as chief of government. The presidential system of de Gaulle resembles the American more nearly than do governments in less developed countries. Under the Gaullist constitution as amended in 1962 a nationally elected president and an elective legislature representing geographic districts are distinct and separate entities that share each other’s powers, with no guarantee of binding ties through a preponderant or even a majority party. But what the constitution guarantees (at least on paper) is that the president shall have such a preponderance of relative advantage as to minimize the need for party ties, thus assuring his pre-eminence in government regardless of his party’s legislative fortunes.

The Gaullist president is elected by the nation for a term of seven years. He names the ministry, which has wide powers in administration and lawmaking but serves at his pleasure. There is a premier, but the president presides at will and has his own staff. He confronts an independent legislature, but he can dissolve it, setting new elections, when and as he chooses after its first year. The legislators can do nothing of the sort to him or to his ministers. If the nation is imperiled—and he defines “peril”—he dispenses with legislation and rules by decree. He faces his electorate but once a term. The deputies face theirs when the president decides to part with the legislators. Almost their only countervailing power is the right to refuse places in his ministry—or to reject its bills within the limits of their rather narrow competence— during their year of grace from dissolution. This should carry weight if his assured supporters were returned in the minority. But that situation has yet to arise; the weight is theoretical. So is much else about the Gaullist constitution; no one knows how it would work (or whether it could last) without de Gaulle.

While he survives, however, his regime is very different from the presidential system in the United States. Despite the fact that each has an elective president, White House centrality is of a lesser order than de Gaulle’s supremacy, which naturally extends to the bureauracy because it encompasses both ministers and deputies. Acknowledging the differences, a number of French analysts use “presidentialist” in lieu of “presidential” to distinguish de Gaulle’s system from America’s. It is a sensible distinction.

Indeed, when English analysts contend, as some now do, that British government is gradually becoming “presidential”—with the cabinet sometimes seeming but a staff to the prime minister— “presidentialist” better describes where such a tendency, if it exists, would lead. For if Churchill and Macmillan should turn out to mark a trend toward concentration of initiative and judgment in the premiership, then Whitehall’s hold on Westminster through the mechanism of the parliamentary party would support an outcome far more “presidentialist” than “presidential”: de Gaulle’s pre-eminence, not merely White House eminence, is surely at the end of such a road for Britain. Provided that the government kept a working majority in Parliament, the substitution of prime minister for cabinet would center on him a role beyond the reach of an American president.

Much the same can be said of other cabinet systems that may seem to verge on being “presidentialized”: none resembles “presidential government” as it is known in the United States up to the present time.

Richard E. Neustadt

[See alsoConstitutions and constitutionalism; Federalism; Government; Leadership; Parliamentary government; Political executive; Public policy. Other relevant material may be found inAdministration; Civil service; Commissions, government; Constitutional law; Judicial process; Legislation; Parties, political; Representation; Welfare state; and in the biographies ofBagehot; Bryce; Hamilton, alexander; Jef ferson; Madison; Tocqueville; Wllloughby; Wilson.]


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