There is a fondness on both sides of the Atlantic to refer to the President of the United States as “the most powerful man in the world".
An article in Monday’s New York Times, “GOP Lawmakers and Romney Face a Delicate Tango", brought that “power” issue front and centre. Far from seeing the "most powerful man in the world", Jonathan Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer argued that, if Romney wins the election in November, he will find an impediment: fellow Republicans in Congress, who argue that the legislature should drive the policy agenda.
This importance of separation of powers is not necessarily recognised by those used to Parliamentary systems, with a blurring of the distinction between legislature, judiciary, and executive. In Britain, for example, all members of the executive sat in Parliament, either in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The current Law Lords are members of the House of Lords and can vote on the measures that they will subsequently consider as judges.
The American system of government is quite different. Acts of Congress and initiatives by Presidents have often been ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt’s first New Deal legislation crumbled because of these errors. In only two cases is this principle of separation set aside: the Vice President presides over the Senate and has a casting vote in a tie, and all three branches meet in Congress for the President's State of the Union message.
The framers of the Constitution envisaged that laws would be made by the legislature and implemented by the President. In 2012, how the times are a’changing. House Republicans are saying that the order of the past 80 years, when the President called the tune is over; the Chief Executive cannot expect to have his legislative agenda passed by nodding dogs.
When a freshman Representative from Louisiana, Jeff Landry, describes the role of the House Republicans as the conductor driving the train, not the cheerleading squad on the sidelines, are we meant to be enthusiastic or appalled? If a President were now to cede the legislative agenda and authority to Congress, how will the strength of his leadership be gauged? Is the American public prepared for such a sea change?
And looking forward, on the big assumption that Mitt Romney can seize the President, his agenda could get short shrift in Congress, not from his Democratic opponents but from his supposed Republican allies. If a fight between the two develops and is properly reported in the media, what will the consequences be?