Presidents and Prime Ministers: A Comparison
Two of the most important executive positions in the free world today are those of the president and the prime minister. While there are many nations that will have one or the other of these offices (and some, like Germany, will have both), I will discuss the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain since each of these offices was a creation of their respective nations and have been borrowed by other nations since.
A Comparison of Constitutions
Before we talk about the distinctions and likenesses between the president and the prime minister, it would help to survey the constitutional support for each office. The British constitution is uncodified, meaning that its constitution is not embodied in any one document. Rather, the British constitution can be found, not only in written documents, but also in conventions and in expert authority. In effect, the British constitution evolves incrementally. Therefore, the office of prime minister is one that has evolved over time as well. The first prime minister was Robert Walpole who was made prime minister in 1712. However, until recently, there has not been much mention of the prime minister in the laws of the United Kingdom. The prime minister’s statutory office is “First Lord of the Treasury.” In fact, there is no constitutional requirement that there be a prime minister. The prime minister’s role is largely that of convention, a creation that has crept its way into the framework of British constitutionalism over centuries.
Not so with the American president. The office of the American presidency emanates from a codified constitution and the presidency is a deliberate creation, a product of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There, delegates from 12 states created the office of a national chief executive from a series of proposals and debates, relying on law, history, philosophy, but mostly past experiences. By the time they signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, the framers had on paper a single national executive that was given an impressive array of powers such as that of commander in chief, veto, pardon, and appointment.
However, this executive also had important limitations as the Framers of the Constitution deliberately checked his powers. This president was the Commander-in-Chief of the national army, but the Congress controlled the budget of the military. And while he had broad powers to appoint ambassadors, consuls, and judges, those appointments were subject to Senate confirmation. He was given significant powers to veto acts of Congress, but Congress could override his veto pen with a 2/3 vote in both houses. The power to pardon was unusual in that it had no limits except that the president could not pardon a case of impeachment. Over the years, the courts have kept the power to pardon virtually plenary.
So, while the British constitution does not require a prime minister, the U.S. Constitution certainly requires a president. Another important distinction is that when it comes to the Constitution, Great Britain has two executives: the prime minister and the monarch. While the monarch does not take an active role in the politics of Great Britain (it is said that the Queen “reigns, but does not rule”), she still has a constitutional role. She still appoints the prime minister and the ministers are considered “her majesty’s ministers.” She calls for elections and takes an active role in diplomacy with other nations, notably the nations of the Commonwealth.
The Executive in the Legislature v. The Executive and the Legislature
The prime minister is an “executive in the legislature," that is, he's both a legislator and an executive. Under the British constitution, the voters create an assembly and the assembly creates the executive. So the prime minister is both a legislator and an executive: he is elected from a constituency (so that makes him a legislator) and he's been chosen by the House of Commons to lead Her Majesty’s Government (that makes him an executive).
The American president, however, is not a legislator. While some textbooks call him the “Legislator-in-Chief," technically that’s incorrect. The legislative power (the power to make law) is given to the Congress alone in Article I. The president lacks the power to make law. He does have limited power to stop laws and while he can recommend legislation, Congress can ignore his request. Presidents do issue executive orders and some other directives that have the force of law. As a technical point, however, he has no inherent law-making power. It's common practice for the president to initiate the bills that will be considered by the Congress. But, he cannot initiate them personally; he must get a member of Congress to do this for him.
However, the prime minister and his government will initiate the legislation that will pass the House of Commons. Once those bills pass the House of Commons they are destined to become law and have constitutional status. Should the Commons reject the legislation of the prime minister’s government, they are in essence rejecting his government and you can expect a vote of no confidence to ensue which will likely result in the resignation of the prime minister and his government.
Term of Office
As for the American president, the Electoral College elects him for a term of four years. He can serve a total of two of these four-year terms according to the Twenty-Second Amendment. Because an American president is term-limited, he has the potential of becoming a “lame duck” during his last term of office (especially after the midterm election of his second term).
The prime minister, on the other hand, has no term limit. The prime minister will remain prime minister so long as he is reelected to the House of Commons, enjoys the confidence of his party and his party remains the majority party in the Commons. Great Britain must hold an election every five years, but the prime minister can ask the Queen to call for an earlier election, a request she will honor. A prime minister might want to call for an election sooner than five years in order to strengthen his party’s position in the House of Commons.
All American presidents (with the exception of Gerald Ford) have been elected by the Electoral College, an elite group of voters appointed by state parties for the specific purpose of selecting the president. The vote of the American people only plays an indirect role in the choosing of the US president. The state’s popular vote will go to determine which party’s list of potential voters will get to be the state’s official electors that vote in the Electoral College. This Electoral College never meets together: rather electors go to their state’s capitol and cast their votes there in December after the popular vote in November.
However, a prime minister is not elected to be a prime minister. Rather, the prime minister is chosen by the Queen from among the members of the House of Commons to be the prime minister. She will select someone that she feels can lead a new government in the House. The person she chooses will likely be the head of his party that will likely win the upcoming election. So, the prime minister is chosen by the Queen, but he is also chosen by the House of Commons to lead the government of Her Majesty. However, it can’t be forgotten that the prime minister, unlike the American President, is a creature of the legislature, just like every other member of the House of Commons. Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, is the leader of the Conservative Party and also a member of the House of Commons and represents the constituency of Whitney.