||Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe|
The ABCs of Democracy
Section 2: Democratic Political Systems
The state which is sometimes simply called England, and, with a better approximation, Great Britain bears the official name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The various parts of that state are governed separately and some differences are likely to increase. This applies in particular to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where strong political movements demand autonomy or independence. Yet Great Britain is not a federal state, even though it preserves the distinctive features of its component parts. On the Channel Islands (near the coast of France) and on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea the Queen is represented by governors, so that the British rule is indirect, as is also the case of dependent territories and colonies, such as Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man have parliaments of their own. There was also a separate parliament in Northern Ireland, but it was dissolved in 1986. In 1979, a referendum rejected the proposal for a separate parliament in Wales, nor has a separate parliament been approved by the Scotch (but it seems likely that in Scotland the matter will be taken up again). There are special offices (ministries) for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The British parliament is the oldest in the world, and Great Britain is often said to be a constitutional monarchy. But neither the parliament nor anyone else has adopted a constitution of that country. There is no text which would resemble constitutions known otherwise, nor is there any single special act describing the institutions of the state. For all that, the British and other commentators of that political system argue that Great Britain has a constitution, although not complete and not written down in a single document. Some laws passed by the parliament pertain to the fundamental issues of the functioning of the state. But many important matters are determined by custom: the practice observed so far. There are laws pertaining to the parliament, but there is no law pertaining to the office of the prime minister and to the cabinet (i. e., the team of ministers, conducting regular meetings).
This is in agreement with the principles of the British law, according
to which not only acts of parliament determine what is law. Custom is law,
too, provided that it is not unreasonable. The existence of custom in a
given matter is confirmed by court rulings.
The British parliament emerged from the Royal Council, to which was
joined the House of Commons which consisted of territorial representatives,
held its debates outside the Council, and communicated with the Council
through the intermediary of its representative, named the Speaker. At present,
the parliament consists of two houses, one of which, the House of Commons,
has drastically restricted the prerogatives of the other, the House of
The range of those entitled to vote was widening in the l9th century, which resulted in the formation of the Labor Party whose members found their seats in the House of Commons in the early 20th century. The Labor Party formed minority cabinets between the world wars, and its convincing victory in the elections to the House of Commons in 1945 resulted in Labor Party cabinets in 1945-51. The majority of the members of the Labor Party belong to it through the intermediary of the trade unions that are collectively members of the Labor Party. Its funds also largely come from the trade unions.
Women have been voting in Great Britain since 1918, when they were accorded voting rights on turning 30; in 1928, the age barrier for women lowered to 21. In 1970, the voting age was established at 18 years.
In the parliament, there are no fixed seats for the right and the left in the continental political sense of these terms. Architecture reflects politics: there is no semicircle of the benches for the members which meet near the Speaker's seat. The house is divided into two sides and the members representing the governing party sit opposite to those representing the opposition. On the right hand of the Speaker there are seats for the members of the cabinet, behind them, in the back benches, there are seats for the other members of the governing party. On the left hand of the speaker there are places for the members of the opposition, whose task is to ask questions and to criticize the government. The opposition - like the government - is a State function, it is Her Majesty's opposition.
The debates of the House of Commons are presided over by the Speaker, who sees to it that the order of the debates be preserved but, contrary to the name of his function, does not participate in the discussions except when he has to give the casting vote. Those willing to address the House rise from their seats (often dozens of persons at the same time) in order "to catch the Speaker's eye." The member who has been allowed by the Speaker to address the House does that from his seat; there is no rostrum, and the speeches are short.
A large part of the work of the House of Commons consists in the supervision of the cabinet in the form of asking questions. The ministers concerned answer those questions everyday, Monday through Thursday, for nearly one hour. On Mondays and Thursdays the prime minister answers the questions posed by the leader of the opposition, for a quarter of an hour at a time; in all he has to answer about one thousand questions in a year.
The membership in the House of Lords was for centuries an attribute of birth or (much less frequently) office. Today some 1,200 persons enjoy the right of sitting in the House of Lords, some 800 of them being hereditary members. In 1958, a new principle of membership in the House of Lords was adopted: the Queen, following a proposal by the prime minister, appoints life peers with the title of baron or baroness. There are now 382 such non-hereditary members of the House of Lords. Ex officio members include 19 Law Lords, two archbishops, and 24 bishops of the Anglican Church, denomination linked to the State: the dignitaries of the Anglican Church are appointed by the Queen following a proposal by the prime minister.
The House of Lords was sometimes said to be conservative, but today the conservatives do not have the majority there. Some lords represent the Labor Party, and more than 200 are independent (cross?benchers). From 1963 on, one may resign the title of lord and become elected to the House of Commons, which is important because of the custom, established in the early 20th century, that the prime minister comes from the House of Commons.
The debates in the House of Lords are presided over by Lord Chancellor, a member of the cabinet who supervises the judiciary - an analog of the continental minister of justice. The House of Lords performs the function of the court of the highest instance, but it passes its sentences rarely. The average attendance in the House of Lords is about 300 persons, which is a considerable improvement as compared with the 1950s and the 1960s.
In 1911, the Parliament Act deprived the House of Lords of its right of veto, but the House still could delay the promulgation of parliamentary acts by two years. In 1947, the House of Lords protracted the nationalization of the steel industry. The Labor Party cabinet brought about then, in 1949, the limitation of the delaying power of the House of Lords to one year. Moreover, since 1911 the House of Lords may delay the promulgation of only those acts of Parliament which do not entail State expenditure. The acts which provide for expenses are submitted for royal signature one month after their adoption by the House of Commons, regardless of the opinion of the House of Lords.
The Parliament Act of 1911 mentions the need of replacing the hereditary House of Lords by a house elected by the will of the people. That act treats the House of Lords in its present form as provisional, which means a warning by the House of Commons to the House of Lords, most probably intended to prevent the House of Lords from too frequent obstructions of the work of the House of Commons.
The acts approved by both Houses are signed by the Queen. According to the traditional legal terminology the acts are passed by the Queen (or the King) in Parliament. The Queen forms part of Parliament, next to two houses. Every year the Queen opens the session of Parliament by delivering in the House of Lords a speech on which she presents the policy of Her Majesty's Government. That speech outlines the program of the parliamentary work of the cabinet. Government is exercised in the name of the Queen, and cabinet regulations are issued by the Queen in Council (they are countersigned by the concerned members of the cabinet).
In Great Britain there is no judicial control of acts of Parliament, unlike in those countries in which there are constitutional courts or the control of the constitutionality of the legislative acts by the Supreme Court. As already in the l8th century one of the British lawyers (William Blackstone) put it, Parliament "can do everything that is not naturally impossible." But in practice what Parliament does is influenced by tradition and political situation, which limit its possibilities. Parliament may also reduce its own power, which it did on the vast areas of the Empire during the decolonization.
The government in Great Britain is a product of Parliament, is a committee of Parliament and works in Parliament. Only members of the two houses may be ministers.
The function of the prime minister is customary, not regulated by any act, and originates from the times when one of the ministers was charged with the duty of replacing the king: it was so in the early period of the still reigning Hannover dynasty, when George I did not speak English. Until 1902, prime ministers used to be members of either house, but from that date on only members of the House of Commons have been prime ministers, which was linked to a reduction of the importance of the House of Lords: the prime minister speaks and answers questions in that house of which he is a member. During the last century the center of gravity of parliamentary life shifted to the House of Commons.
The cabinet (the narrower governing body) is also a customary institution. It usually includes 20-22 persons, during both world wars there were still narrower teams functioning as war cabinets. Most members of the cabinet control branches of public administrations and are heads of ministerial offices even though their offices have various names, not necessarily ministries. There are, however, heads of ministries who are not members of the cabinet. Finally, some members of the cabinet are not heads of ministerial offices and bear elaborate titles such as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord Privy Seal. The members of the cabinet are members of the Privy Council, but they give advice to the queen individually or in small teams; the full Privy Council meets extremely rarely on ceremonious occasions.
The cabinet meets at least once a week (on Thursdays) for about three hours; its debates are secret. The prime minister, who adopts the agenda, chairs the meetings, during which opinions are formulated and endeavor is made to arrive at a consensus ? usually there is no voting. The joint responsibility of the cabinet members is assumed, and they usually do not voice their separate opinions on the governmental policies even if they engaged in controversy at a cabinet meeting.
The cabinet chooses committees which control the various spheres of the government's work. There is also the cabinet office functioning as its secretariat (some 120 persons) and a separate secretariat of the prime minister (70-80 persons).
The government as a whole has some one hundred members, and next to cabinet members includes ministers of State and undersecretaries of State. Undersecretaries of State act on behalf of the respective ministers in that house of Parliament, of which those ministers are not members. If a lord holds the office of minister, which now is rare, then in the House of Commons the questions posed to him are answered by an undersecretary of State who, as a member of Parliament, has the right to speak in the House of Commons.
The prime minister appoints civil servants and organizes their work. It is assumed that they are politically neutral and should with the same assiduity and equally well organize the nationalization of the economy - under the government of the Labor Party - and its privatization - under the government of the Conservative Party.
Some offices, boards, and committees are (or were) partly governmental or indirectly governmental, that is financed by the government but administered separately. They include such institutions as the municipal transport in London, BBC, the civil aviation enterprise, the coal board, the energy board. Similar institutions form a fairly vast border area of activities dependent upon the government but not fully subordinated to it.
After World War II, when the Labor Party formed the government in 1945, it started expanding State institutions of social welfare. Nationalization covered the Bank of England, Civil Aviation, the coal industry, the power industry, and iron and steel works. The conservatives privatized the iron and steel works after 1951, and the Labor Party nationalized them again after 1964. Under the conservative government after 1979, many enterprises (British Telecom, British Gas, and British Airways) were privatized and enterprises directly subordinated to the government were transformed into public corporations that were independent of the government in their daily functioning. As the Chancellor Nigel Lawson once declared, "the Conservative Party has never believed that the business of Government is the government of business."
Under the British political system, the distinction between the office and the person who holds it is considered essential. A clear distinction is made between the person of the monarch and his or her office, that is the Crown, in the name of which the cabinet functions. During several centuries the kings were losing their prerogatives on behalf of Parliament; they retained some of them, but these are exercised in the name of the Queen (or the King). The Queen acts in accordance with the advice given to her by the prime minister or a cabinet member. The opinions of other persons in the matters of the State may be heard by her, but that is not taking advice. The Queen convenes Parliament in accordance with the will of the electorate. The Queen dissolves the House of Commons, but in accordance with the recommendation of the prime minister. The Queen appoints and recalls ministers and signs acts of Parliament but it has not occurred since 1707 that the monarch refused to sign an act passed lawfully by Parliament. The Queen makes appointments to important posts, but does so upon a proposal of a member of cabinet. She awards distinctions, confers knighthood and raises to peerage, but she chooses persons from the list of candidates submitted by the prime minister.
The Queen is the Head of the Commonwealth that was officially established by an act of 1931 (originally as the British Commonwealth of Nations). It now consists of 50 sovereign States and associated and dependent territories. The Queen, besides being the Head of the Commonwealth as a whole, is also the head of State in many countries, among them in Canada and Australia. Some countries receded from the Commonwealth: among others, Ireland did that in 1948?9 and became a republic; in 1961, republic was proclaimed in South Africa. The functioning of the Commonwealth includes regular meetings of the heads of governments of all the States which are members of the Commonwealth.
The political system in Great Britain is an extreme example of the parliamentary system. The government, and in particular the prime minister and the cabinet, are products of Parliament and remain its parts. Parliament and the government, as offices, are separated from one another, but the same persons exercise legislative and executive power. It is the Crown which is the cohesive factor of the State system of Great Britain (and the Commonwealth): laws are passed in the name of the Crown and in its name decisions are made by the highest officers of the State, responsible to parliament.
In France republics are numbered. The first existed in 1792-9 (between the short-lived constitutional monarchy of 1791 and the Consulate and the Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte; some people think that it survived until 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself as the Emperor of the French). The Second Republic had the shortest duration: from 1848 to 1852 (between the so-called July monarchy of Louis Philippe of l830 and the Empire of Napoleon III). The Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, and it existed for seventy years. Its institutions ceased to function when the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, working as the National Assembly, transferred in l940 their prerogatives to Marshal Pétain (some people hold that the French State under Pétain was Part of the Third Republic because Pétain neither annulled its constitutional laws nor proclaimed a new constitution). The dating of the Fourth Republic usually begins with the adoption of a new constitution in 1946. The Fifth Republic came into being in 1958 and functions to this day.
That numeration and the dates, sometimes not easy to pinpoint, when
one legal system came to an end and another began, are linked to the successive
constitutional projects of the future or France, formulated most often
after the collapses and troubles of that country in international politics
and at home. The wars waged by revolutionary France when it still was a
monarchy contributed to the rise of the First Republic. The Second Republic
was proclaimed during the Paris riots of February 1848. The end of the
Second Empire and the proclamation of the Third Republic were brought about
by the defeat of France in its war with Prussia, and the end of that republic
was due to the defeat of France in l940. The period immediately after World
War II saw the Fourth Republic was born while the war in Algeria and the
protests of the Algerian French who stood for the French rule there contributed
to the emergence of the Fifth Republic.
The formulations of certain provisions in French constitutions were influenced by the fear of monarchy and of the strong power of an individual. In 1884, the constitutional laws of the Third Republic were amended by the provisions that the proposal to change them could not infringe the republican form of government and that members of the families which had reigned in France could not be elected president of the republic. These formulations were repeated in the constitution of the Fourth Republic. It was an anti-monarchic discrimination, which was moreover to bind the future constitutional assemblies. The said restrictions were linked to the experience from the period when the republican form of government was not yet a foregone conclusion and the constitutional laws were a result of controversies and compromises between the republicans and the monarchists (the latter fought among themselves for the rights to the throne of two royal and one imperial family). Louis Napoleon, a nephew of Napoleon I, became the first president of France elected in universal suffrage in 1848 (only men were voting then). In 1852, a decision of the Senate, confirmed by a plebiscite, restored the Empire, and Louis Napoleon became the Emperor as Napoleon III. When in 1962 General de Gaulle achieved through a plebiscite the election of president in universal suffrage, the opposition criticized direct democracy and recalled the fact that Louis Napoleon had become the Emperor owing to the universal suffrage.
The Fourth Republic emerged in opposition to Pétain's France
and from a clash between de Gaulle's presidential ideas, on the one hand,
and the traditions of the Third Republic and the habits of the French political
parties, on the other. In June 1940, de Gaulle started forming in London
and in French colonies in Africa the institutions of Free France, bringing
about the formation, in Algeria in 1943, of the French Committee of National
Liberation, transformed into a provisional government in 1944. To Pétain's
legalism he opposed the legalism of the Third Republic, and when in 1944
he met with persuasions to proclaim the republic, he declared that the
republic had not ceased to exist. After the liberation of France there
were numerous trials of officials of the French State headed by Pétain,
In 1945 Marshall Pétain and former prime minister Laval were sentenced
to death (the sentence was not carried out in Pétain's case).
Under the Fourth Republic (1946-58) the institutions of the Third Republic were on the whole preserved although some names had been changed. The lower chamber of the parliament was called the National Assembly, and the higher, the Council of the Republic (but from 1948 on its members had the titles of senators). The government depended on the approval of the National Assembly; during the 12 years there were 25 governments, and none of them functioned for more than 18 months. In the special case of a government crisis the government had the right to dissolve the National Assembly (that happened once, in 1955).
The Fifth Republic, which has existed since 1958, has been mainly designed by General de Gaulle, who during the conflict in Algeria, intensifying from May 1958, became prime minister on June 1 and started reforms of the system of state institutions, which, among other things, provided for strong prerogatives of the president. In September 1958, in the national referendum, the new constitution was approved by the majority of nearly 80 percent of the voters. It became the law on October 4, 1958. The new constitution has provided for a clear separation of the executive and the legislative power. One cannot be simultaneously member of the cabinet and a member of the parliament (a member of the parliament nominated as a member of the government must either reject the nomination or abandon his seat in the parliament). The president of the republic is elected independently of the parliamentary elections. In December 1958, de Gaulle was elected president by an indirect vote, that is by electors. In 1962, in a referendum, the French approved the election of the president by universal suffrage, and such a suffrage took place in 1965, after the first term (seven years) of de Gaulle's office as president. In the second ballot his counter-candidate was socialist François Mitterand.
In the system of the institutions of the Fifth Republic the president is the main center of the executive power. The government is responsible to the parliament, but the president is not (his power is legitimated by the universal suffrage). The president presides at the meetings of the government, while the prime minister may do that only exceptionally, when specially authorized by the president.
The president is the superior of the army, presides at the meetings of the committee of national defense, and negotiates and ratifies international treaties.
The rights of appointment are an essential element of the presidential power, the president appoints the prime minister and recalls him when the prime minister resigns with his government (but the president may not recall the prime minister without the resignation of the government; the further existence of the government depends upon the parliament, and not upon the president). On the motion of the prime minister, the president appoints and recalls ministers. The president appoints the holders of state posts, but the nominations to more important posts, for instance those of ambassadors and prefects (local representatives of the government in the departments) take place at meetings of the government.
The president has the right to dissolve the National Assembly, which under in the Fifth Republic happened four times. Twice under de Gaulle, namely in l962, when the National Assembly denied its confidence to the Pompidou government, and in 1968 after the student and workers strikes in May. Also twice under François Mitterand, immediately after the presidential elections (in 1981 and 1986). Each time in the new elections to the National Assembly the two presidents obtained a more advantageous situation (the majority or a larger majority for their parties or coalitions).
Some acts of the president are countersigned by the prime minister and, in the appropriate cases, by the competent ministers, but there are presidential decisions, such as the appointment and the recalling of the prime minister and the dissolution of the National Assembly, which are his personal prerogatives and as such need not be countersigned by the prime minister nor the competent government minister.
The government determines and conducts the policy of the state, and controls public administration and the armed forces. The actions of the government are directed by the prime minister. The government may demand of the parliament the powers to issue, for a definite period, executive regulations in matter which normally are regulated by acts of the parliament. The executive regulations are issued by the government (presided over by the president). They correspond to what under the Third and the Fourth Republic used to be decrees. Executive regulations are administrative acts interfering with the sphere of legislation and may later become laws if ratified by the parliament.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic states plainly that not everything is liable of regulation by parliamentary acts. The matters which must be a subject matter of parliamentary acts are specified in the constitution and include: civic rights, burden imposed upon citizens in connection with national defense, citizenship, inheritances and donations, definitions of offenses and penalties, taxes, principles of the emission of currency, elections to the parliament and to local councils, nationalization and privatization of property, fundamental principles of national defense, territorial administration, education, ownership and commercial obligations, labor legislation, trade unions law, and social benefits (the enumeration in the text of the constitution is somewhat longer). What is not regulated by parliamentary acts may be controlled by government regulations.
The laws are adopted by the parliament and signed by the president (within 15 days after their passing from the parliament to the government). The parliament consists of two chambers whose names are the same as they were under the Fourth Republic. The National Assembly (some 500 deputies) is elected for five years, but the president may dissolve it before the expiration of the term of office. The senators (about 300) are elected for nine years and are divided into three groups according to the alphabetical list of the departments. Every three years the mandates of the senators from one of the three groups expire and elections are held. The president of the National Assembly is elected for the term of office of the Assembly. The president of the Senate is elected every three years, after each elections of senators. If the post of the president of the republic is vacant, the president of the Senate temporarily performs his functions.
It is assumed that every member of parliament represents the nation, and not only his own electoral district. The members of parliament are to perform their functions without subordinating themselves to instructions from the electorate or political organizations. The legislative initiative is the prerogative of the prime minister and the members of parliament, and then the members of parliament and the government have the right to propose amendments. The government may submit its bills in any chamber of the parliament, but budget bills are submitted first to the National Assembly.
In the Fifth Republic until 1986 the elections to the National Assembly took place in one-seat electoral districts and in two ballots. In order to be elected in the first ballot one had to win the absolute majority of all the votes cast (and more than 25 percent of the votes of persons entitled to vote). If in a given district no-one won the seat in the first ballot, those who competed in the second ballot were all those candidates who received at least 12.5 percent of the votes of those entitled to vote, and if there were no such candidates or there was only one of them, the two candidates who won the largest number of votes.
Thus the voting in the elections to the National Assembly was majority-based. That system, which is disadvantageous to smaller parties, was opposed by the communists and also the socialists, who prior to 1981 were in the opposition. Mitterand, before the presidential elections in 1981, declared that he was in favor of the proportional system, and the new socialist parliamentary majority adopted such a system in 1985. In 1986 the elections were based on that new system and while it gave a victory to the right, it was smaller than it would have been possible under the majority system. In l986 the right-wing majority in the parliament restored the majority system in one-seat electoral districts.
In the majority electoral system the usefulness of the votes is not the same: on the national scale the number of the votes which is sufficient for the election of a deputy from a stronger party, which has a greater number of followers, does not suffice to elect a deputy from a weaker, less popular, party. Under the majority system a shift in the number of the votes cast for a given party may result in a change in the number of the deputies of that party out of proportion to the difference in the number of the votes. The majority system works as an amplifier: it amplifies the political consequences of shifts in public opinion. That was why from Mitterand's point of view it made sense to take into consideration the change in the public opinion manifested during the presidential election and -- by the dissolution of the parliament -- to bring about new parliamentary elections in 1981 and 1986 (on the basis of the majority system, which he criticized but of which he availed himself).
The Senate is elected by the indirect vote, that is by the colleges of electors in every French department.
Aware of the experience acquired under the earlier parliamentary systems, the legislators in the constitution of the Fifth Republic formulated the principle of the responsibility of the government to the parliament so that the government can be abolished only by the majority of the members of the Assembly (greater number of the votes against the government as compared with the number of the votes for the government alone is not sufficient).
The prime minister after the debate in the Council of Ministers may submit to the National Assembly the issue of the responsibility for the program of the government and to win the approval of the Assembly or to be faced with its disapproval. In the latter case the prime minister submits the resignation of his government to the president. The prime minister may also link the responsibility of his government to the voting on a given text (bill). In such a case the bill is treated as accepted unless the deputies within 48 hours move for the vote of confidence for the government and the majority of the members of the Assembly refuses such confidence.
The motion for the vote of confidence may lead to the voting only if
submitted by at least one-tenth of the members of the National Assembly
(i.e., some 50 deputies). If the motion is rejected, its authors may not
submit such a new motion during the same session unless they do so in reply
to the prime minister's initiative linking the responsibility of the government
to a definite text (bill) submitted to the National Assembly.
After World War II, Italy was still a kingdom, but in the referendum held in June 1946, the Italians declared themselves in favor of the republic by the majority of two million votes: 12.7 million for, and 10.7 million against. Shortly after the referendum, King Umberto II left Italy, but did not abdicate. The constitution, adopted by the Constitutional Assembly in late December 1947, exceeds in republican zeal other similar legal texts. It forbids the members of the Savoy dynasty to vote in general election, to hold public functions and those to which their holders are elected; moreover, the ex-monarchs, their wives and male descendants are forbidden to enter Italy and to stay there (it was only in 1987 that the ex-queen, at that time aged over 80, was permitted to come to her country).
The Italian constitution was adopted by a large majority of votes against the resistance of the monarchists, who had a small representation in the Constitutional Assembly. The strongest parties in the Assembly were: Christian Democrats (35.2 percent of votes received), socialists (20.7 percent), and communists (19 percent). Some formulations in the constitution have a markedly ideological tinge combined with a rather indefinite legal meaning (Article 1 states that "Italy is a democratic republic based on labor"). Similar formulations were a result of decisions and compromises made by the three largest parties in the Assembly.
The post-war configuration of forces in the Italian parliament has undergone little change until the 1990s. Political likes and dislikes have been deeply rooted in Italy and in a durable way they marked differences among the social groups. The Italian voter was usually a follower of a particular party and voted similarly in the successive elections, so that the distribution of the votes among the various parties did not change quickly. Moreover, electoral preferences were transmitted to the new voters in similar proportions. The electoral law in force until 1993 provided for proportional representation, that is the number of the seats in the parliament reflected the percentages of the votes in favor of the various parties. That is why the split of the seats did not change quickly. Essential changes in the configuration of political forces did not take place in the parliament but in composition of the successive governments when governmental coalitions were formed.
The parliament consists of two chambers. The Chamber of Deputies has 630 members elected for five years. The Senate has 315 members elected for seven years, but there are also senators for life (there were 11 such senators in 1994). Deputies and senators are elected in universal suffrage, directly, and in a manner which gives equal representation to electoral districts with the same number of population. Thus, unlike in the United States, the Senate in Italy represents the inhabitants rather than the regions. In 1993, the electoral law was changed so that now 75 percent of the elected seats in both chambers is filled on a majority principle and only 25 percent by proportional representation. The 4 percent threshold was introduced in the Chamber of Deputies, eliminating small parties that had quite a long parliamentary tradition.
The president of the republic is elected for seven years by both chambers of the parliament completed by representatives of the regions. He is elected by the majority of two-thirds of the votes, but after three unsuccessful votings, the ordinary majority of the votes of the electoral assembly is sufficient. Winning the majority occasionally proved difficult: Giovanni Leone was elected president in 1971 in the 23rd voting. Oscar Luigi Scalfaro was elected in 1992 in the 16th voting. But Francesco Cossiga was elected in 1985 by an overwhelming majority already in the first voting. The Italian constitution requires the president to be at least 50 years old (John Kennedy, 43 at the time of his election, could not have been president in Italy). A senator must be 40 years old, and a deputy, 25 years old.
Presidential acts are valid only if countersigned by a minister or ministers who assume responsibility for them. Those presidential acts which have the validity of a parliamentary law (as well as other acts specified by the law) are also countersigned by the prime minister. The president may dissolve the parliament or one of its chambers. He nominates the prime minister and ministers (upon the proposal of the prime minister). The government ought to obtain the vote of confidence of both chambers not later than ten days after its formation. A vote of confidence is also taken upon the motion submitted by at least one-tenth of the members of either chamber. Such a motion is discussed not earlier than three days after its presentation.
The legislative initiative is a prerogative not only of the government and the members of parliament, but also of the voters who may submit a bill after having collected at least 50,000 signatures. The voters may also, in a referendum, abrogate a parliamentary act or its part. A referendum is organized at the demand of at least 500,000 voters or five regional councils. The motion subjected to a referendum is accepted if the turn?out was more than 50 percent and if the majority of the valid votes was for the motion. A referendum takes precedence before the parliament's decisions and thus makes it possible for the voters to influence the legislation. Certain parliamentary acts (those concerned with the budget, amnesties, and ratification of international treaties) cannot be abrogated by a referendum.
Italy is divided into territorial units whose number and size resemble
the French departments -- there are 94 provinces (districts). The nearly
8,000 communes are lower-level administrative units, while the 20 regions
are the higher level units. Local government was organized shortly after
World War II in the five regions that were accorded autonomy. In 1970,
the regional structure was spread over the whole of Italy (additional 15
regions were created). The communists, whose practical chances of governing
the country or participating in its government have been until 1990s slim,
have fully participated in local governments.
In 1993 and 1994, the Italian political system changed radically. The electoral law was changed in 1993 and, after March 1994 elections, a leading Italian businessman, Silvio Berlusconi, formed a coalition government in May 1994, dominated by three parties, each of them taking part in the government for the first time: Berlusconi's recent creation Forza Italia, the League, led by Umberto Bossi, and the National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini. This change proved that Italians considered then the traditional parties and the whole system of their politics to be worn off. In the parliament elected in 1994, 70 percent of deputies and senators seated for the first time. The system that has existed until 1993, based on proportional representation, has been, however, stable for many years.
The Christian Democracy (DC), existing since 1943, has been receiving
in all elections to the Italian parliament, until 1992, the largest number
of votes, and in 1948-53 it had even the absolute majority in the parliament.
The arithmetic shows that, except for the brief period, it would have been
possible to form a government without the participation of the Christian
Democrats, but the communists would have then to belong to the governmental
majority and, moreover, would be the strongest party in that majority.
What was arithmetically possible proved impossible in practice. Until 1994,
the formation of a government usually depended upon agreements between
the Christian Democracy and other non-communist political parties.
In the 1950s, the Christian Democrats used to win in the elections slightly over 40 percent of the votes and formed a quartipartite alliance with the Social Democrats, the Republicans, and the Liberals. In the early 1960s, DC started the policy of an opening to the left (more to the left than towards the Social Democrats), which in 1962-72 and also in the 1980s resulted in the formation of governments with the participation of the socialists.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, the Christian Democrats used to receive
somewhat fewer votes than previously in the parliamentary elections, but
it was still nearly 40 percent. In the 1980s that result was closer to
30 than to 40 percent. In the 1950s the DC lacked only a few percent of
the votes to obtain the parliamentary majority. From the 1960s that difference
increased to over a dozen percent. Owing to coalitions, the missing percentages
were provided by other parties.
The communists, from the 1940s on, have always been the second party with regard to the number of votes received in the parliamentary elections (but in the elections to the European Parliament in l984 the communists received 33.3 percent of the votes and came ahead of the Christian Democrats by 0.3 percent). In the early 1970s the communists formulated the idea of the "historic compromise" which, combined with the "opening to the left" of the Christian Democrats, was to bring about (but did not) a coalition of the Christian Democrats with the communists. In the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 1976 and 1979, the communists won over 30 percent of the votes. That number fell to a little below 30 percent in 1983 and to slightly over 26 percent in 1987. The party changed its name into the Democratic Left Party (PDS) in 1991--in an effort to win confidence of the voters and, in the long run, to take over the government of the country in a coalition. In the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 1992, the communists were divided: beside the PDS, there was a more orthodox group??the Communist Reconstruction Party. The PDS received then 20.4 percent of the vote, and in 1996 they won the election with 21.1 percent of the vote. The Communist Reconstruction Party received 8.6 percent and promised to help the PDS.
The socialists, whose party has existed since the late l9th century, had, until 1992, usually come third in the number of the votes. In 1946, they even came slightly ahead of the communists in electoral popularity. In the elections in 1948 they formed joint electoral lists with the communists--as the People's Democratic Front (the communists outnumbered socialists more than twice on those lists). That alliance with the communists continued until l956. In l953?63 the number of the votes cast for the socialists rose from over 12 to over 18 percent. In the l970s and in the early 1980s that number was about 10 percent, but in the elections of 1987 it rose to nearly 15 percent. That growth was ascribed to the fact that Craxi, the leader of the of socialists, was by Italian standards prime minister for quite a long time (1983-7). The socialists received 13 percent of votes in the 1992 elections, but their electoral popularity dropped to a mere 2.2 percent in 1994.
The rightist-national Italian Social Movement (MSI) participated in the elections for the first time in 1948 and won two percent of the vote (and six seats) in the Chamber of Deputies. Until 1994, the MSI used to obtain five to seven percent of the votes, but has not participated in the governments. The MSI changed its name into the National Alliance in 1994 and received 13.4 percent of votes in that year's elections. The National Alliance received 15.7 percent of the vote in 1996.
The Republican Party (PRI), revived after World War II, refers to the traditions of the Italian national rebirth movement in the l9th century and the anticlericalism which marked that movement. During the last twenty years the PRI usually received some three percent of the votes, but in 1983 exceeded five percent and in 1992 received above 4 percent. It was not represented in the 1994 parliament.
The Social-Democratic Party (PSDI) emerged in 1947, following the break in the Socialist Party, caused by those who did not approve of the then alliance between the socialists and the communists. In the 1960s the social democrats merged with the socialists and in the 1968 elections they won jointly over 14 percent of the votes, but they parted again after the elections. Until 1992, the PSDI usually have won some three percent of the votes.
The Liberal Party (PL), with old traditions, opposed the abolition of the monarchy in 1946. Nor did it accept the center-left (centro-sinistra) coalitions in 1962-72. Since the end of the 1960s the PL has been losing votes, from nearly six to nearly four percent, and later it used to receive from one to three percent.
The Radical Party (PR) emerged in the 1950s following a break in the Liberal Party. In 1976, when it participated in the elections for the first time, it won one percent of the votes, and later returns ranged between two and 3.5 percent. That party criticized all other parties and sometimes made the passing of parliamentary acts difficult by moving for hundreds of amendments. It organized collection of signatures demanding referenda which would abrogate already adopted laws, and saw to the spectacular aspects of its opposition to existing political configurations.
The Greens, the party concerned about the conservation of the natural environment, participated in the election for the first time the in 1987 and it received 2.5 percent of the votes. In 1994, the Greens received 2.7 percent.
After changes in the electoral law and an anti-corruption campaign in
the 1990s, the Italian political system changed dramatically. The newly
created party, Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi, won the 1994 elections,
receiving 21 percent of the votes. It received 20.6 percent in 1996. Another
new party, the League, was created in 1994 from the transformation of the
North League that in turn in 1991 unified local leagues of Piemonte, Toscany,
Fruli Venezia and Lombardia. The League takes care of the interests of
the wealthy northern part of Italy and demands greater autonomy for the
regions. It received 10.4 percent of the vote in 1996.
It was a significant Italian political custom that participation in the elections and the referenda was almost universal and often exceeded 90 percent of those entitled to vote (the turnout exceeded 80 percent in 1994 and 1996). The constitution says that participation in the elections is a "civic duty" (but abstentions are not punished). The voters sometime make their vote invalid by canceling all party lists of candidates or by writing a proper (or improper) comment. Invalid votes, which may be interpreted as manifestations of protest, ranged usually from two to three million.
The Christian Democracy, which for a long time has determined the Italian politics, was a denominational party, but it hardly could be said to be conservative. When one discusses the Italian political system, mention is due to the Roman Catholic Church.
The Italian state, which emerged in the 19th century, was integrating Italian territories in opposition to the Papal State. The contrast between the Roman Catholic and the lay tradition was important in the recent history of Italy, but the Italians knew how to mitigate it. In l928, Benito Mussolini, then the prime minister, signed with the Apostolic See the Lateran Treaties which included the concordat. Italy recognized the sovereignty of the Vatican state and the Roman Catholic character of the Italian state; it was decided that Roman Catholic religion would be taught in schools and that canon law has consequences in civil law, such as the recognition of religious marriages by the state and the absence of provisions for divorce in civil law.
After World War II, the constitution stated that the state and the Roman Catholic Church were independent and sovereign, each in its own domain, and that the Lateran Treaties were still valid and could be amended only with the approval of both parties concerned.
Divorce was legalized in 1970. Four years later the Italian electorate rejected in a referendum, by l9 million to 11 million votes, the demand (supported by the Christian Democracy) that the legalization of divorce be repealed. The new agreement with the Apostolic See, signed in 1984, states that Roman Catholicism is not the religion of the state and takes into consideration the modifications in civil law (the possibility of divorce) and the new principles of teaching religion in schools.
The Italian political system, despite complaints about its instability,
has proved durable for a long time, owing, among others, to the durability
of political customs. Until 1993, much more than in many other countries,
the differentiation among political parties has reflected the differences
in the opinions of the inhabitants. Before 1993, political agreements and
coalitions were elaborated after the elections. Since the introduction
of the majority electoral system, the politician noticed that it is useful
to form coalitions before the elections, as it was the case in 1996, when
the center-left Olive Tree coalition, consisting of 13 parties and groups,
won the election against the Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance.
When the Federal Republic of Germany emerged in 1949, it was to be a provisional organism, created, as its Basic Law (Grundgesetz) put it, "in the transition period." But the new German state was conceived well enough to last longer than originally expected, and already nearly four times longer than Hitler's Third Reich that was planned for one thousand years.
Germany as a single state existed in 1871-1945 and after 1990. Until 1918-1919 it included kingdoms, duchies, and free cities -- areas which until today have preserved many distinctive features. The division of the country into provinces (Länder) and the federal system of the state functioned in the "Weimar republic," whose constitution was adopted in 1919. After Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the autonomy of the provinces was abolished in 1933-1934.
Whoever remembers the history of Germany would not be astonished by the fact that today's Germany is a federal state. The division into provinces was adopted after World War II within the occupation zones, which, on the whole did not coincide with the historical boundaries of the earlier German political units. The exceptions, which retained their historical boundaries, were Bavaria in the American zone, mindful of its distinctive features, Schleswig-Holstein in the British zone, and two cities which enjoyed the status of provinces, namely Bremen in the American zone and Hamburg in the British zone. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany consisted of eleven provinces, three of which (from the former French and American zones) merged in 1951 to form Baden-Württemberg. In 1957, Saarland, previously politically subordinated to France, became a new German province. Until October 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany consisted of ten provinces. In October 1990, they were joined by Berlin as a full-fledged unit and by five new provinces, which formerly were parts of the German Democratic Republic, namely Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony, and Thuringia.
German local government authorities were formed after World War II in the four occupation zones, especially in the cities and provinces (Länder) in which the occupation authorities appointed provisional provincial governments with limited prerogatives. Elections to the provincial parliaments were held in 1946-7. The proportional electoral system was adopted (as in Italy and France) because it was believed that after a period of undemocratic rule, the proportional system would better mirror the still not very tangible political differentiation. In the western occupation zones, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats won the majority, the liberals and the communists winning fewer seats. The role of the communists was greater in the Soviet occupation zone, under the protection of the Soviet Army, the more so as already in 1946 the Social-Democratic Party ceased to exist there after having been merged with the communists.
In May 1947, a conference of the representatives of the provincial governments
from the four occupation zones was prepared in Munich. The heads of the
five governments from the Soviet zone demanded that the personal composition
of the conference be expanded, the agenda be modified, and the conference
be transferred to Berlin. When their demands were rejected, they left,
and the conference was held without them. From that moment, until 1970,
there were no official encounters of representatives of the East German
and West German authorities.
In May 1949, the Parliamentary Council passed the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), which had all the characteristics of a constitution except for its name. The last article of that act stated that the law would loose its validity at the moment of coming into force of a constitution adopted by the German people when it has the freedom of decision. There is a Constitutional Tribunal, formed on the strength of the Basic Law, whose task is to assess the conformity of the laws and the goals of the political parties with the Basic Law. In 1956, the tribunal delegalized the communist party (which was reborn in 1968 under a different name). There is also an Office for the Protection of the Constitution which functions as the political police subordinated to the federal minister of internal affairs.
The parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany has two chambers, one of them -- the Bundestag -- elected in universal suffrage, and the other -- the Bundesrat -- not elected, but consisting of representatives of the provincial governments.
The term of office of the Bundestag is four years. The Basic Law states
that its members represent the people as a whole and are not obliged to
follow anyone's instructions.
Because of the five-percent threshold, the voters cannot be represented by parties which have little popularity, and the participation in the Bundestag of those parties which have won more than five percent of the votes is usually greater than the percentage of the votes they received. The German system combines the proportional representation of major political parties with the considerable influence of the electorate (and not only the party bosses) upon the election of persons from a given party, and that owing to the voting in the one-seat districts.
Except for the cases specified in the Basic Law, the Bundestag makes decisions by the ordinary majority of the votes cast. The exceptions include the election of the federal president and the chancellor (when absolute majority is needed) and the amendments to the Basic Law (when at least two-thirds of the votes in the Bundestag and in the Bundesrat is needed).
The Bundestag and its committees may demand that the members of the government be present during the debates. Members of the Bundesrat and the government, and also their representatives, have the right to participate in the sessions of the Bundestag and its committees and to speak at any moment of the debates.
The composition of the not elected chamber of the parliament, the Bundesrat,
is determined by the provincial governments, which appoint and recall their
representatives. Every province (Land) has in the Bundesrat at least three
votes and must vote uniformly (not uniform votes of the delegates of a
given province are considered invalid). Provinces which have more than
two million inhabitants have four votes each, and those with more than
six million inhabitants, five votes each. The five-votes provinces are
Northrine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Lower Saxony
(Niedersachsen). Decisions in the Bundesrat are made by the majority of
six votes, that is of at least two provinces. The president of the Bundesrat
is elected every year.
Legislation comes from the federal parliament and from the provincial parliaments. The Basic Law lists the domains in which federal legislation is exclusive (from foreign policy to federal statistics). There are also domains in which the provinces make laws to the extent in which that is not done by the federation (the list begins with civil law and ends in the measures against the pollution of the natural environment).
The president of the Federal Republic of Germany is elected by the Federal Assembly consisting of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of delegates elected on the proportional principle by the provincial parliaments The term of office of the federal president is five years, and he may be re-elected only once. He does not, as a rule, make important decisions alone. His acts are valid only if countersigned by the federal chancellor or the competent minister. When the federal president ceases to hold his office, he is replaced by the president of the Bundesrat, until the new federal president is elected.
The federal government consists of the chancellor and ministers. The chancellor is elected by the Bundestag upon the proposal of the federal president The candidate is elected (and appointed by the president) if he receives the absolute majority of votes. If the suggested candidate is not elected, the Bundestag can still elect the chancellor by the absolute majority of votes within 14 days. If it is unable to do that, a new vote takes place after which the federal president either appoints as chancellor the person who has received the greatest number of votes or dissolves the Bundestag.
The Bundestag elects the chancellor, but does not elect the ministers. The composition of the government is shaped by the chancellor: ministers are appointed and recalled by the federal president upon the proposal of the chancellor. The chancellor's term of office depends on the parliament: when the first session of a new Bundestag begins, the chancellor ceases to hold his office (but upon the request of the federal president he may function until his successor is elected). The chancellor may assume his office again, which has happened several times in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. When the chancellor leaves his office so do the ministers (but upon the request of the president or the chancellor, a minister may function until his successor is appointed). A minister may also assume his office again.
Cabinet crises, so frequent in the Weimar republic, are made difficult in the Federal Republic of Germany by the principle that the Bundestag's no confidence vote to the chancellor is valid only if it elects his successor by the absolute majority of votes (this is called the constructive no confidence vote). The responsibility of the government to the parliament is regulated so that it does not suffice for the opposition to have the majority in the Bundestag to abolish the government; the opposition must agree on the person of the future chancellor (and hence indirectly on the policy of the future government).
It is otherwise if it is the chancellor himself who raised in the Bundestag the issue of the vote of confidence: if the Bundestag by its absolute majority of votes refuses the vote of confidence, then the president of the Federal Republic of Germany may, upon the proposal of the chancellor, dissolve the Bundestag within 21 days. But if the Bundestag elects a new chancellor by the absolute majority of votes, then the president's right to dissolve it expires.
In 1972 and 1983, the elections to the Bundestag were held earlier than it would follow from that chamber's term of office. In both cases the chancellor asked for the vote of confidence in order to be refused it and to make it possible for the president to dissolve the Bundestag. In 1972, Brandt in the new elections won the majority he had previously lost when several of his adherents joined the opposition. In 1983, Kohl strengthened the majority he had already had.
The stability of the political system in the Federal Republic of Germany has been confirmed by the relatively rare changes on the posts of the president and the chancellor, both depending on the parliament: during forty seven years there were in that country seven presidents and six chancellors. On several occasions they were re-elected.
The party system in the Federal Republic of Germany comes close to the two-party system and it is sometimes called a two-and-a-half party system. After World War II, the two strong parties have been the Christian Democrats (who gave four chancellors) and the Social Democrats (who gave two). The Christian Democrats were in power in 1949-69 and from 1982 on, mostly in a coalition; the Social Democrats were in power in 1966-82, also in coalitions. In 1966-9 power was in the hands of the "great coalition," that of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. The third party, the liberals, has played in the Federal Republic of Germany a more important role than the similar party in Great Britain. The liberals in Germany usually participated in coalition governments and occasionally, by changing their alliance, they contributed to a change of the government.
The Christian Democrats are not homogeneous denominationally: this party, like the whole of Germany, consists of Roman Catholics and Protestants. In the Federal Republic of Germany, within its limits prior to October l990, there were over 44 percent of Roman Catholics and over 41 percent of Protestants. These percentages can be precisely established: the data on the denomination of the inhabitants are official in Germany because the Churches are supported by taxes and the denomination of the taxpayer determines the destination of his contribution. Bavaria, has a strong majority of Roman Catholics and a distinct party functions there, called the Christian Social Union (CSU). The Christian Democratic Party (CDU) functions in the remaining provinces. On the federal forum both parties operate jointly. Roman Catholics exceed 50 percent of the population in Rheinland-Palatinate and in Northrine-Westphalia, and there is more Catholics than Protestants in Baden-Württemberg, whereas in the northern provinces, the Protestants form a marked majority. In the former Prussian lands, which formed part of the German Democratic Republic, Protestantism is dominant (and the Social Democratic Party has relatively many followers there). After the reunification, Protestants (44 percent) outnumber Catholics (37 percent).
The Christian Democrats won the absolute majority in the parliament only in the elections of 1957, and, except for the Bundestag's term of office in 1957-61, they had to form a coalition, usually with the liberals, but in l966-9 with the Social Democrats.
At its conference in Bad Godesberg in 1959, the Social Democratic Party mitigated its program by discarding Marxism and radical and revolutionary elements. In the 1950s and the 1960s the percentage of those who voted for the Social Democrats was rising from less than 30 in 1953 to 45 in 1972. In 1983, 1987, and 1990 the Social Democrats received less than 40 percent of the votes (the minimum, 33.5 percent, being in 1990). Their standing improved in 1994, when they got 252 deputies in the Bundestag.
The Free Democratic Party (FDP), liberal in its orientation, usually participated in the governments together with one of the two major parties: with the Christian Democrats (at the times of Adenauer and Erhard, in 1949-57 and 1961-6, and at the times of Kohl, from 1982 on) or with the Social Democrats (at the times of Brandt and Schmidt, in 1969-1982). The coalition with the FDP enabled Brandt to form his government in 1969, whereas in 1982 the change of the position of the FDP resulted in the formation of the government by Kohl. The FDP usually received about 10 percent of the votes, and several times (recently in 1980 and 1990) exceeded that barrier. In 1994, FDP's performance was worse and the party got 47 deputies in the Bundestag.
The party of the Greens, concerned with the problems of the natural
environment, came to be represented in the Bundestag first in 1983. In
1980 it won 1.5 percent of the votes and failed to be represented in the
Bundestag. In 1983, they entered the Bundestag after having won slightly
more than five percent of the votes; in 1987 they received more than eight
percent of the votes, but in 1990??less than five percent. Yet two
Greens from the territory of the former German Democratic Republic became
Bundestag deputies as members of the political coalition Alliance 90. They
improved their performance in 1994 and got 49 deputies to the Bundestag.
The Federal Republic of Germany came to existence following the approval of the three Western occupation powers, which participated in shaping its system. The unification of Germany also required international co-operation, and the issue was raised on many occasions in West German-Soviet talks (the details are not always known). The matter gained momentum in the late 1980s.
In May 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic signed an agreement on the monetary union, which came into force on 1 July of that year (the GDR currency was withdrawn from circulation). An agreement on the unity of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic was signed on 31 August. Following this agreement, the GDR ceased to exist as of 3 October 1990. That did not, however, mean the end of the Soviet presence on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic: Soviet troops stayed there until August 1994. Elections to the provincial parliaments on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic were held on 14 October. The Christian Democrats received most votes in four provinces, whereas in Brandenburg the Social Democrats won a plurality (nearly 40 percent of the votes). The all-German elections to the Bundestag on 2 December gave the victory to the Christian Democrats on the national scale. Similar and joint political institutions were fast reproduced on the territory of the former GDR, and the elections of 14 October and 2 December have shown that the differentiation of public opinion was similar in both parts of Germany, with the proviso that the post-communist "reformatory forces" and the Greens received a (small) representation in the Bundestag, owing to the votes cast by the inhabitants of the former GDR.
The agreement on German unity of 31 August, 1990, led to the amendments of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, which eliminate references to the provisional character of that state and its system. Since August 1990, the Basic Law includes the statement that the unity and freedom of Germany have been achieved.
The United States was formed in opposition to the British rule in the
late 18th century. The union was initially formed by thirteen states situated
on the Atlantic coast. During the two centuries that followed, they were
joined by new states, whose total number now is fifty. Those matters which
in Europe are termed matters of State, such as legislation, are largely
the domain of individual states; the law in particular states, including
penal law, differs quite radically from case to case.
Unlike in many European countries, in the United States the constitution for the whole country was adopted only once, whereas constitutions of certain states have been totally changed several times. The United States Constitution was passed in 1789, and later only numbered amendments were added to it. The first ten amendments, dating from 1791, refer to civic rights. The twenty-sixth amendment, of 1971, lowered the electoral age to 18 years. The latest, twenty-seventh, voted in 1789, was adopted after more than 200 years, in 1992. It refers to congressional pay raises.
Amending the constitution is no easy matter. It is required that an amendment be approved by the majority of two-thirds of the votes in both chambers of Congress and that it subsequently be adopted by three-fourth of state legislatures. The procedure of accepting an amendment by state legislatures may take quite a long time, as was the case of the 27th amendment, and it often ends in the rejection of the amendment.
Amendment 13, dating from 1865, decided that slavery was illegal. Amendment 18, of 1919, was a social and legal experiment which continued for over a dozen years; it prohibited production, sales, imports and exports of alcoholic beverages. The lawmakers tried to control morality, contrary to habits and customs. The prohibition was repealed in Amendment 21 of 1933.
The United States Constitution establishes the separation between the legislative, the executive, and the judicial powers. The executive power is exercised by the president, elected every four years through universal suffrage. The voting consists in electing the electors for each state (in the number equal to the joint number of representatives and senators which that state has in Congress). In the case of the District of Columbia, which includes Washington, there are as many electors as in the smallest state. In all, there are 538 electors. If a presidential candidate wins the majority of votes in a given state, all the electors from that state vote for him (in 47 states and in the District of Columbia that is declared by law, in three states such has been the custom since 1916).
The rules of nominating presidential candidates are different in the
various states and there is no national list of candidates, but several
candidates usually are on the electoral lists in all states.
From 1951 on, a person may be re-elected president only once (Amendment
22). Prior to 1951, only Franklin D, Roosevelt was elected more than twice:
If the office of the vice-president becomes vacant, the new vice-president is nominated by the president, and his choice should he confirmed by the majority of votes of both chambers of Congress.
The constitution mentions the existence of offices of the executive authority, but does not specify them, and states that the president may ask the heads of those offices for advice in writing. That is the constitutional basis for the functioning of the cabinet, which is a customary institution convened by the president. The cabinet includes the vice president, over a dozen heads of central offices, called secretaries, and other persons invited by the president. There is no separate office of prime minister, the cabinet is presided over by the president. Nor is there a secretary for home affairs or internal affairs in the European sense of the term. The Interior Secretary is in charge of national parks and natural resources.
The president not only nominates cabinet members but also holders of tens of thousands of posts in public administration. The Senate approves or disapproves the presidential nominations, but in practice rarely refuses its approval. There is no parliamentary responsibility of the cabinet members. Unlike in the British parliament (and in parliaments in continental Europe), in the United States cabinet members do not answer questions in the chambers of Congress (even though there are hearings by parliamentary committees). The task of the two houses of Congress taken as a whole is not to evaluate the functioning of the cabinet, but to pass legislative acts, including the budget, which is a way of influencing what the cabinet can do. In the United States, Congress neither grants nor refuses the cabinet its confidence, nor can the president or the cabinet dissolve Congress. The legislative and the executive authority influence one another, but unlike in Europe neither can overthrow the other.
The president is the head of the armed forces, but the right to declare war is a prerogative of Congress. So far Congress has declared war five times, recently in the case of the two world wars. As the head of the armed forces, the president prepares the national defense and may command military operations, which on many occasions took place without a declaration of war. In 1973, Congress passed the act that has restricted the possibility of the president's using the American armed forces abroad, as it states that that requires consultations with Congress and presentation of reports. The use of the armed forces for more than 60 days requires the approval of Congress or a declaration of war.
The president may be dismissed from his office if the House of Representatives concludes, by the ordinary majority of votes, that he committed a serious offense or infringed the constitution. In such a case, the president is judged by the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, The president is deprived of his office if the Senate, by the majority of two-thirds of votes, confirms the objections of the House of Representatives. In the 19th century that procedure twice broke down in the House of Representatives and once resulted in the Senate declaring the president not guilty. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned when he faced the threat of being impeached. House of Representatives formulated two accusations against President Clinton in December 1998 and on that ground Clinton was judged by the Senate in February 1999. The Senate declared him not guilty.
The House of Representatives has, from 1913, 435 members. The elections are held every two years in one-seat constituencies. The number of the representatives of the various states is in proportion to the population, but at least one representative must be elected from each state. The number of the representatives of a given state is fixed every ten years on the strength of the census which also takes place every ten years.
The American population is migrating westward and southward, and hence recently every ten years the number of the representatives of the large states in the west and in the south increases (this applies mainly to California, Texas, and Florida), while that of the states in the east decreases (in particular in the case of New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois).
Every census is followed with a re-districting of the constituencies, which is the task of the governors and the parliaments of the states concerned. The appropriate demarcation of the constituencies may considerably increase the chances of one of the two principal parties, because the minorities that are concentrated territorially, above all the Blacks and the Hispanics, usually vote for the democrats. It is in the interest of the democrats to demarcate constituencies with a mixed population so that the minorities might counterbalance the republican electorate. But if the minorities want to be sure of the election of their representatives, then they are interested in constituencies with their marked majority and not very mixed as to population, which is also in the interest of the republicans. These problems, rather specific to America, are linked with the geographical differentiation of the American population and the voting in one-seat constituencies on the principle that the winner takes all. The demarcation of the constituencies would be less relevant in the proportional electoral system.
In the House of Representatives, the majority (218) makes the quorum. The debates may take place without the quorum, but at every vote any representative may demand the quorum. When, upon such a demand, the Speaker states that there is no quorum, bells are rung to call the representatives to the house; the representatives have their offices near the Congress main building and may reach it by underground passages.
Senators, two from every state, are elected for six years; at present there are one hundred senators. Every two years, one-third of the Senate is elected. Prior to 1913, senators were elected by state parliaments. From that date on, on the strength of the 17th Amendment, they are elected directly in every state by universal suffrage.
In the Senate, the vice-president rarely performs his function of the
of President of the Senate (he is replaced by the President pro tempore).
He votes in the Senate only if he has to give the casting vote.
In 1969-77, the presidents were republicans (Nixon and Ford), and this has also been so in 1981-93 (Reagan and Bush), but in the House of Representatives the democrats have held the majority since the 1930s until 1994. The republicans recently held the majority in the Senate in 1981-7 and since 1994. Since 1994, governors of states are mostly republicans. Politicians not connected with the two principal parties are practically not found in the most important institutions. There has been only one independent senator and one independent member of the House of Representatives elected in 1998.
Republican presidents usually had to govern facing the democratic opposition
in Congress, which necessitated convincing the members of Congress to approve
the president's plans. Similarly, the democratic president, elected in
1992, William Clinton, has been facing republican majority in Congress
since 1994. Presidential cooperation with another party is possible owing
to the fact that although there are typical inclinations to vote in Congress
with one's party, there is no hundred-percent discipline. Opinions (and
votes) do not coincide strictly with party divisions.
In Congress certain matters are settled on the basis of unanimity, for instance, unanimity is required if in the House of Representatives a member is to be allowed to speak longer than for one hour. The simplest method of voting consists in the representatives voicing their opinion. The Chairman says "As many as are in favor, say 'aye'" and later "As many as are opposed, say 'no,'" and establishes the result by comparing the volume of the two exclamations. In case of doubt, he requests the 'ayes' to rise, and later the 'noes' to rise. Upon the demand of a representative, supported by one-fifth of the quorum, the Speaker may appoint tellers (from both parties) who count the votes or may order individual vote. The representatives should then give their votes within fifteen minutes, but that time may be shortened to five minutes (the representatives are then summoned by bells). Since 1973, the representatives have been voting using an electronic device activated by their personal cards. The votes of the representatives and the senators in the various cases are recorded because that is essential for their image in the eyes of the electorate and for groups of interest and pressure groups, which scrupulously inform public opinion about how the members of Congress voted in matters in which those groups are interested.
A considerable part of parliamentary work is carried out in committees. There were recently 22 standing committees in the House of Representatives and 16 standing committees in the Senate; moreover ad hoc (select) committees are called to existence, and there are also joint committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The oldest such committee, formed in 1800, is that on the Library of Congress.
The Committee of the Whole, usually called to being when a legislative act is being prepared, is a peculiar committee of the House of Representatives. All the representatives sit on it, and it hence might seem unnecessary, but its functioning does make sense: it has rules of proceeding different from those binding in the House of Representatives, namely the quorum is 100 persons and speeches are limited to five minutes each. Until 1970, there has been no recorded personal vote in the Committee of the Whole. The House of Representatives (that is the same team but named differently and observing different rules of proceedings) does not discuss the proposals submitted by the Committee of the Whole, it may only either accept or reject them.
During the recent terms of office of Congress, the representatives and senators submitted up to over a dozen thousand bills during one term. Out of them, only several hundred (less than 10 percent) were passed and became laws.
A bill, after the submission of amendments and their acceptance or rejection by the competent committees and by the Committee of the Whole, should be passed by both chambers which have equal rights in their legislative work and both of them have to agree upon the text to be accepted. If there is divergence of opinion, endeavors are made by a joint committee, consisting of members of both houses, to reach consensus. The text that has been agreed upon and accepted by both chambers is sent to the president to be signed by him. The president may, within nine workdays after receiving the text, formulate his reservations and return the text to the Congress, that means, he may veto the bill. If the president does not sign the bill within nine days, it becomes a law in spite of the lack of the presidential signature, which makes it possible for the president not to support a given act without preventing its adoption. The presidential veto may be overriden by the decision of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress.
Presidents used their veto usually several dozen times during one term of office, and their vetoes were on the whole rarely overruled, for instance, President Reagan used his veto 78 times, and it was overruled by Congress nine times only.
The final legal decisions are the prerogative of the Supreme Court, which now consists of nine justices appointed for life by the president with the approval of the Senate. The Supreme Court settles disputes among the states, between the states and the federal authorities, and between citizens and the federal authorities. It also voices its opinion on the agreement of the congressional acts and the presidential decisions with the constitution, and interprets the constitution and other legislative acts. The decisions of the Supreme Court are binding for other courts and for legislators who handle similar matters.
The prerogatives of the branches of government in the United States are fairly well defined and different. The political system in that country is one of an equilibrium among the branches of government which check and balance one another.
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