Can Trump be checked and balanced?

The US Presidential system has been much heralded as a prime example of horizontal accountability, but there is no guarantee how Donald Trump will be kept in check. 

Ulrike Theuerkauf
2 December 2016
The United States Capitol Building

The United States Capitol Building. Flickr/www.GlynLowe.com. Some rights reserved.

The US presidential system has been much heralded for its system of checks and balances. But Trump’s victory has given rise to a number of questions about the future of US democracy and world politics. The most important of these questions is arguably this: what checks and balances in the US political system will Trump face during his presidency? Based purely on the institutional setup of the US presidential system, how much damage can Trump cause? The answer, unfortunately, is quite a bit.

For a long time, the US presidential system has been regarded as a textbook example of horizontal accountability (i.e. accountability between government institutions) for its famous system of checks and balances [1]. A standard question in introductory courses to Comparative Politics asks students to assess “who is more powerful: the US President or the UK Prime Minister?”. Students are expected to distinguish the international from the domestic sphere, and to discuss how the US President is seen as more powerful in the international arena, while the UK Prime Minister has greater because less constraint in domestic politics. Elements in the institutional design of the US political system that ensure more checks and balances than that of the UK include:

•      US federalism with a powerful second chamber of parliament (the Senate) in contrast to a devolved but unitary British state with a second chamber of parliament (the House of Lords) that wields more symbolic than actual political power [2];

•      a powerful US Supreme Court that is an important political player in its own right [3], in contrast to a still young British Supreme Court whose powers are inevitably curtailed by parliamentary sovereignty ;

•      the fact that the US President, unlike the UK Prime Minister, is not allowed to initiate legislation; and

•      the mutually independent relationship between executive and legislature in the presidential system of the USA that stands in contrast to the mutually dependent relationship between executive and legislature in the parliamentary system of the UK. This means two things: the UK government, unlike its US counterpart, can dissolve parliament before the official end of its term in office (through a vote of confidence). Conversely, the UK parliament, unlike its US counterpart, also can remove the government from power before the official end of its term in office (through a vote of no confidence) [4]. Removing the executive – or more specifically: the President as the head of the executive – from power in the US presidential system is only possible through the process of impeachment which, unlike the vote of no confidence in parliamentary systems, is a legal procedure that can only be used if the president is accused of a criminal act.

In terms of checks and balances, the argument in favour of the mutually independent relationship between executive and legislature in presidential systems like that of the USA is that, since government and parliament do not depend on each other to remain in office, they may be more willing to hold each other to account [5]. Yet there is a flipside to this argument, as well as to all the other points mentioned above.

As Linz discussed in his Perils of Presidentialism [6], the mutual independence of executive and legislature in presidential systems has the downside of rigidity: the president, once in power, will stay there for the entire term of office unless there is cause for impeachment. This process itself is very complicated and no president in US history has been removed from office through impeachment so far (Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the US House of Representatives, but acquitted by the Senate.) Thus, once Trump is sworn in, it is very unlikely that he will not complete his four-year presidency.

Also, while the US President does not have the de jure power to initiate legislation, this can also be circumvented de facto if a member of Congress proposes a bill in his stead. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the US political system [7] and, given that the President’s ability to influence the content of legislation rises under unified government [8], the current Republican majority in Senate and House of Representatives could give Trump considerable sway over influencing the legislative agenda.

Similarly, if, as is the case right now, a majority of Senators are from the same party as the President, there may be less incentives to “check and balance” the President, depending on how much loyalty they feel to Trump and the party line he embodies. This too could weaken the degree of horizontal accountability provided through federalism and the powerful second chamber of parliament.

Finally, Trump‘s nomination of the next Supreme Court Justice will almost certainly tilt the balance of power among Supreme Court judges in favour of the right, which is likely to influence its voting and vetoing behaviour in that direction.

Ultimately, and just like anywhere else in the world, the degree to which legislature, executive and judiciary hold each other to account in the US presidential system can shift depending on who occupies which political office. In this sense, checks and balances are never set in stone, as the level of horizontal accountability may differ depending on the balance of power between political parties and – especially in the current situation of a unified government – the willingness of members from the Republican Party itself to keep Trump “checked and balanced”.

Even though the focus of this article is on horizontal accountability, it’s also important to remember that vertical accountability (i.e.the manner in which citizens hold governments to account, not only through elections but also civil society action) is of equal importance for democracy to remain intact. Calls to stay mobilised against Trump illustrate this.

The US presidential system has long been hailed as an exception to the rule that presidential democracies are famously vulnerable to democratic breakdown [9]. It would, however, be foolish to ignore that a populist leader with the support of his party can cause some real damage to US democracy if he is not kept in check.

1 Calhoun, Craig.2002. Dictionary of the Social Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2 Clark, William Roberts, Matt Golder and Sona Nadenichek Golder. 2013. Principles of Comparative Politics. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

3 Nicholson, Stephen P., and Thomas G. Hansford. "Partisans in Robes: Party Cues and Public Acceptance of Supreme Court Decisions." American Journal of Political Science 58.3 (2014): 620-36. Web.

4 Clark, William Roberts, Matt Golder and Sona Nadenichek Golder. 2013. Principles of Comparative Politics. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

5 Heffernan, Richard. 2005. Why the Prime Minister Cannot Be a President: Comparing Institutional Imperatives in Britain and America. Parliamentary Affairs 58(1): 53-70.

6 Linz, Juan J. 1990. The Perils of Presidentialism. Journal of Democracy 1(1): 51-69.

7 Dessayer, Kathryn Marie. 1990. The First Word: The President’s Place in “Legislative History”. Michigan Law Review 89(2): 399-426. 

8 Barrett, Andrew W. and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha. 2007. Presidential Success on the Substance of Legislation. Political Research Quarterly 60(1): 100-112.

9 Cheibub, José Antonio. 2007. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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