Getting ahead of ourselves

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.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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13 Responses to Getting ahead of ourselves

  1. ladytizzy says:

    Italy, Italy shares the highest score? With all due respect to Mongolia, did the authors have a senior moment before proceeding to print? Should I assume that those who answered have had their replies verified? In which case…

    Typical CUP.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    While I realise this is not an agony aunt’s page, do readers have suggestions for the correct way in capturing a bat that has descended from the chimney and is in free-flight mode around one’s sitting room?

    • Frank W. Summers III says:

      Probably too late but a large blanket held by two with skill and patience trying to move it toward the chimney works. I have done it otherwise but they are a bit dangerous and can navigate better than most people’s conception of magic would allow for I am afraid. If you can open doors and windows to the outside while you hunt you will greatly increase the chance of nonlethal success.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Yup, opening a window did the trick.

        No animal was harmed in the making of this comment. Apart from me.

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: should that be agony uncle?

    • franksummers3ba says:

      Glad it worked out Lady Tizzy!

  3. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,
    While I am sure you think of me less often than I flatter myself that you do I still believe that at this juncture you could probably write my comment out instead of reading it.
    We are a Union of States. The State legislatures have the power if acting together to make Tongan our official language, create an offical religion of dog poop worship and declare voting ilegal as long as they keep equal representation of States in the Senate — that is the federal constitution. However, like all the true State powers do directly, the arduous process for any federal action by them through Convention and Seat override has the effect of rendering this power suitable to be used only for sane goals and never yet used in the large way allowed. I used examples you would not use so as not to bore you. The federal legislature has at times proved quite powerful in making war with the rest of the federal power upon other countries. Despite all the changes since founding and a civil war its powers are foreign relations, the currency, the mails, ports and border infrastructure, providing interstate tribunals and conflict of laws referees, maintaining a Union credit rating and keeping a census. When it tries to do more it is hog-tied in so many ways they cannot be enumerated. However, I think a survey of its power geared to those select powers would show it capable as regards law and variable in execution.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: Indeed. Michael Mezey in his work ‘Comparative Legislatures’ classifies the US Congress as an ‘active’ legislature – that is, a well supported legislature with strong policy-making powers. It is the only major national legislature to occupy the category for any continuous period of time. The only other legislatures to occupy the category for any continuous period of time are the state legislatures of the USA.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Thanks for th bibliographical insight once again. Although lately most things only remind me of what I am not reading…

  4. Len says:

    Considering I’m not even studying politics, I’ve spent too long since I came to university looking up academic papers on the powers of presidencies alongside comparative legislatures, but I found much of the same problem there – Siaroff, Metcalf, Lijphart, etc. I’ve started looking at Russell’s The House Rules? document published in 2007 which accumulates data on the powers of selected legislatures and found it very interesting reading considering the recent changes in the Commons.

    I tried looking up some of the categories used for the House of Lords and there are still some parts I can’t find in Standing Orders or the parliamentary website in general, like when select committee reports are debated or the administrative role of the Lord Speaker, but in general I was amazed at how much information was available and I saw much on the Canadian House of Commons as well.

    Admittedly, I don’t see much use comparing legislatures without taking into consideration the larger constitutional framework like presidential, semi-presidential or parliamentary systems.

    In reference to your Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, Lord Norton, I don’t suppose you’d have any idea when/where some of those papers would end up being published? Google Scholar shows nothing so far, but for all I know I may be missing something obvious!


    • Lord Norton says:

      Len: Many thanks. On the papers presented at the Workshop, paper givers have been invited to submit them for possible publication in The Journal of Legislative Studies. We have carried a number of papers from past Workshops in the journal. It should also be possible to get copies of papers from the paper givers. A copy of the Workshop programme, listing all the papers (with the names of paper givers and their institutional affiliations), will shortly be appearing on the website of the Hull Politics Department.

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