American Constitution

Some of you may have viewed the excellent U.S. television series “The West Wing” which was about an imaginary White House Administration. At one point a member of the Cabinet meets a group of representatives of a fictional Eastern European country which has emerged from a civil war and is seeking advice on what constitution to adopt. His advice is to avoid copying the U.S. Constitution. He says “We have exported ours to 23 countries and all have resulted in dictatorships. I strongly advise you to adopt the Parliamentary system.” He adds at some point the observation that the U.S. is the only ex- British colony not to have chosen it.

The current grid-lock which has seized the American political scene, making it seemingly impossible to arrive at some desperately needed decisions on fiscal and social matters, has led me to reflect on the virtues and defects of the two systems.

My conclusion is that the U.S. Constitution, so revered by American citizens, was an admirable one for the newly-independent American colonies which shared a simple agricultural economy and still needed to be bonded together; but I think it is ill-adapted to today’s world where the Government is inevitably deeply involved, among other things, in the social fabric of the nation and in the management of a complex foreign policy.

Faced with an ever expanding and weighty decision-making , the existence of what I claim to be four rival arms of government results so often in conflict and grid-lock. I say four because the House of Representatives and the Senate can be at political odds, and the Supreme Court often effectively makes law. The consequence is a necessity of compromise among the governmental organs which is often not achievable.

In the Parliamentary system, at least in our own one, the Parliament is sovereign and the House of Commons the final authority. I suppose that two of the greatest defects in this political system are that, one, there is too much concentration of over-riding power in the Executive and, two, there is the risk of a too hasty and ill-considered passage of legislation. While I imagine there is a more deliberative process implicit in the American system, I am not forgetting there is some brake on too precipitate action in ours arising from the delaying powers of the House of Lords.

The virtues of this political system are that, in most circumstances, the executive, namely the Cabinet, and the Parliament are of one overall purpose and positive action is achievable.

My American friends, at this point, inevitably raise the issue of the fifty States. After all, the American system is really a confederation, not a federal one, the theory being that the Federal Government has only the powers ceded to it by the individual states, the remaining ones being held by them. They maintain that, under these circumstances, a Parliamentary system would be impossible. I raise the question of how do Canada and Australia handle their apparently similar situations and then conclude that I am completely out of my depth.

Michael Webster