One of the points that I made when I was speaking in Germany was that in the field of comparative legislative studies we now have much more data than ever before, enabling us to generalise to some extent, but the factual information still runs ahead of our ability fully to make sense of it. In many respects, this reflects the complexity of legislatures. Though they may have features in common, each develops characteristics that are specific to it and usually derived from its own nation’s history or the imposition of an external sponsor.
A good example of the point is to be found in a recent publication. M. Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig have edited a massive dataset in The Handbook of National Legislatures, published last year by Cambridge University Press. They have assembled consistent data on 158 national legislatures. They put 32 questions to country specialists, covering the powers, relationships and resources of the legislature (Can the legislature unseat the executive? Does the legislature influence the composition of the Cabinet? Can the legislature probe the executive? Is the action of the legislature necessary to grant treaties?) The result is an incredible compendium of material, unprecedented in its coverage. Legislatures about which we knew little are now covered with the same consistency as the US Congress and the British Parliament.
The data are truly impressive and occupy most of the volume. However, the authors also seek to compile a Parliamentary Powers Index based on the answers to the questions. They divided the total number of affirmative answers by the total number of items in the survey. The Index thus ranges from 1.00 (most powerful) to 0.00 (least powerful). The three legislatures with the highest score (0.84) are Germany, Italy and Mongolia. Fourth equal (0.81) are the Czech Republic, Greece, and Macedonia. The United Kingdom is seventh equal (0.78) along with the Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Turkey. The United States – wait for it – is forty-first equal (0.63), along with the Australia, Fiji, Iraq, India, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jamaica, Portugal and South Africa.
The problem is that each question is given equal weight and the questions themselves are geared to parliamentary rather than presidential systems. Though the authors say they have favoured practice over the formal position, the reality is that the focus is on the formal position rather than the actual political capacity of the legislatures to exercise the powers.
We still have a long way to go to translate the data into useful generalisations about a key and enduring institution that is a feature of all democratic and indeed most non-democratic nations.