Third year BSc International Relations student, Sara Versace, blogs about how the UK Parliament compares to the US Congress.
As an American who has lived in the United Kingdom for three years now, I have noticed there are certain things that are better here than in America. Although the parliamentary system in the UK has its flaws, it is far more functional and effective than the US congressional system.
Reason One: Someone Has to be the Adult in the Room
Firstly, Parliament is better because the Speaker of the House of Commons has an impartial role. The Speaker has to make sure that they remain politically impartial in all matters, although impartiality has been thrown into question with former Speaker John Bercow. Once the Speaker accepts the position they must remove any party affiliation, which is a stark contrast to the House of Representatives Speaker. The Speaker is the political leader that comes from the majority party in the House. They actively push forward their political agenda and ensure that the party in minority does not get their say. This is highly ineffective if the opposition controls the House, which it currently does, and means that it is virtually impossible for the government to get any legislative actions done. America should look towards Britain and realize that having an impartial Speaker would be highly beneficial in preventing the costly government shutdowns that occur almost every year because they can never reach an agreement.
Reason Two: Bigger is Always Better
America is much larger than the UK, but Congress is made up of fewer members. The Commons consists of 650 MPs whereas the House of Representatives only has 435 members. This lack of representation means that for the UK, each constituency has an average of 66,000 people but in the US, each congressional district has an average of 740,000 people. The enormous size of each US district ensures that people are not adequately represented. It perpetuates a system in which the politicians can ignore what their constituents are saying because the demand is too high. The average size of a UK constituency allows people to be represented fairly as the MPs can gain a better understanding of their voters needs. Expanding the size of the House of Representatives would allow for better representation in the House as well. In order to keep up with their population, America desperately needs to expand the size of its government to ensure that their people are fairly represented.
Reason Three: The Senate Doesn’t Get the Job Done
The House of Lords has its flaws, but is far more valuable than the US Senate. The Lords primary role is to carefully examine legislation that is sent up from the Commons. Without the approval from both Houses, a bill would not become a law. The Lords also hold the government to account and have influence over public policy. This legislative review function is more useful than the Senate. The US Senate shares equal powers with the House of Representatives, so they can reject bills and put the government at a standstill. The Senate also has the powers of impeaching the government, but is ineffective when the Senate is controlled by the ruling party, like when Donald Trump was acquitted earlier this year. Currently the Republican controlled Senate makes it a legislative graveyard because the Democrats have control in the House. Although the House of Lords can be seen as undemocratic, I argue the opposite. The seemingly small role that the Lords play in the legislative process is more effective than the constant power struggle that ensues in America.
Reason Four: Americans are Afraid of Questions
The final reason why Parliament is better is because of Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs. This question time every week allows for MPs in the Commons to scrutinize what the government has done. For example last week, Boris Johnson was questioned about the problems of local lockdowns. It gives MPs the power to directly question the Prime Minister and America could greatly benefit from adding a similar mechanism. The presidential administration answers questions through White House press briefings. During the Trump administration, press briefings have been less frequent and more of a joke. In 2017, journalists were barred from accessing the briefing, including the BBC and CNN. Months pass between briefings and Trump does engage directly with the media, but he has control and rarely answers hard questions. The president should go to the House of Representatives once a month and answer questions from Congressional representatives. This would remove the argument about “fake news” and bring the questioning directly to the representatives of the people. Without this, American politicians will continue to be held unaccountable.
To summarize, Parliament functions better than Congress. This is shown through the several key functions that are missing from Congress: the lack of an impartial Speaker, small House of Representatives, too much Senate power, and no legislative questioning of the government. No government is perfect but Congress needs to step up and move towards a better representation of what the people need.
Sara Versace is a third year BSc International Relations student at Canterbury Christ Church University.
This blog was submitted as part of the assessment for Parliamentary Studies on 23 October 2020.
Parliamentary Studies is a third year module taught by Dr Paul Anderson. The module is designed to give students an insider perspective to the workings of Parliament and focuses on topics such as diversity and representation, the devolved legislatures, and the impacts of events such as Brexit and Covid on parliamentary processes. This year’s guest speakers have included Mark D’Arcy, the BBC’s Parliament correspondent, and former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale.
Images: CC: Congress – “[Abroad] United States Congress” by mcdyessjin (Yu-Jen Shih) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Westminster: “The Palace of Westminster 2. Night Shot. Nikon D3100. DSC_0574.” by Robert.Pittman is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0