Last month’s Supreme Court decision on President Barack Obama’s unilateral immigration directive was a positive development for those determined to restore the paramountcy of the legislative branch in U.S. political life. It does not reverse several decades of executive creep, but it is a step in the right direction. Additional resources for congressional staff would be another. The road back to James Madison’s vision – with Congress as the first branch and source of all legislation – will invariably be walked in baby steps.
A similar path is being followed in Canada where members of Parliament have historically been called “nobodies” and “trained seals.” Canadians may even have further to go after decades of centralization in the executive and the marginalization of parliament. But there have been small steps in the right direction in recent years, including a 20 percent increase to parliamentary budgets.
Notwithstanding important differences between the two countries, both nations are slowly moving to empower individual legislators and strengthen the role of the legislative branch. This progress is encouraging and the reformers in Canada and the United States may have something to learn from their respective experiences.
Canada’s parliamentary system sets out different responsibilities, functions and powers for legislators than the U.S. presidential system. The principal difference is that the Canadian system operates on the basis of a fusion of powers rather than the American separation of powers. Thus, the prime minister sits in the legislature and is almost always the leader of the largest elected party in parliament. The cabinet (including the ministers of finance, national defense, foreign affairs and so on) is also selected from sitting legislators. And the government in turn relies upon the legislative branch for its authority. If it loses majority support in the legislature, then typically the government will fall, and elections will be held to select a new executive, including new ministers.
It may sound therefore like the legislature in general and individual MPs (what we call “backbenchers”) in particular must wield considerable power. But alas, that is not usually the case. Members of the governing party almost always vote with the government and opposing members of Parliament vote contrary to the government. The system functions based on party discipline, rather than individual autonomy and the incentives (including the prospect of a Cabinet promotion resting with the prime minister) discourages independence or candor on the part of parliamentarians. Canada’s parliamentary system has been cited as the most prone to party discipline in the world. (America’s national legislature, however, is becoming increasingly parliamentary in this sense.)
The result is that – while MPs are titularly responsible for considering, refining and passing legislation, holding governments accountable for laws and expenditures and determining a government’s longevity by exercising their ability to provide or withhold support – their function has been much more limited in practice. Members typically fall into line behind their parliamentary leader and vote according to the party line. The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore essentially had it right with the famous chorus: “I always voted at my party’s call and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Such a tendency to party-line voting has consequences for the functioning of Canadian democracy. The primary concern is that it can cause MPs to stop properly scrutinizing legislation or holding Cabinet ministers to account when they appear before parliamentary committees. The legislative branch, particularly in a majority government scenario, can become a mere symbolic speed bump on the way to executive action.
These two forces – caucus solidarity and powerful internal incentives, such as a Cabinet promotion or the prospect of local spending – can thus concentrate significant power in the hands of the prime minister and his or her Cabinet. The risk is that the executive is fallible and capable of poor choices and yet faces few parliamentary checks on its scope of action.
Insufficient staffing and research resources for MPs only worsen the problem. Parliamentarians have basic office budgets of $350,000 per year (following the recent budget increase) to pay employee salaries, service contracts, wireless devices, some operating and travel costs and other expenses. Staffing costs need to be distributed between local staff, whose primary role is to respond to requests and concerns from constituents; administrative staff, who are responsible for running the member’s office and arranging an MP’s schedule; and legislative staff, who support a member of Parliament in his or her role on parliamentary committees and in the House of Commons. MPs are therefore often left to review draft legislation, the government’s budget or massive appropriation bills with little support. The image of the backbencher struggling to study legislation in the back of a jammed-packed airplane to and from Ottawa is not far from the truth.
The consequence is what R Street Institute Senior Fellow Kevin Kosar has called “the knowledge problem.” It certainly applies to Canada, where the evolution of our parliamentary system has led to information asymmetries between the executive and legislative branch that exacerbate the pre-existing creep toward executive aggrandizement.
Responsible government – that is, the Canadian idea that the executive is responsible to the people as expressed by the legislature – can only properly function if the knowledge gap between the executive and the legislator is minimal. Parliamentarians can only reasonably hold the government accountable if they have ample time and resources to review and understand legislation. And without adequate resources and staffing, MPs are dependent on the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet offices for information and analysis, and less capable of challenging bad ideas.
But as mentioned at the outset, there have been some positive developments to strengthen the role of parliamentarians in recent years. The past Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, established a system of Caucus Advisory Committees through which backbench MPs from the governing party were able to contribute more directly to government policymaking. The Reform Act, a private member’s bill introduced by a backbench MP, seeks to rebalance the role of individual MPs and party leaders and establish greater autonomy for parliamentarians. The new Liberal government has restored the role of Parliament to approve the government’s annual borrowing limit. And of course, just recently, MP budgets received a considerable boost to hire more staff and pay them more generously.
These steps will not transform the system in and of themselves, but they are progress on the path to strengthening the role of the legislative branch in Canada. We will continue to monitor the similar slow yet essential headway in the United States and learn from your experiences. The work of protecting, sustaining and strengthening our democracies never ceases. It is a long journey.