A legislature is usually a multi-member representative body considering public issues. Its main function is to give assent on behalf of the political community to public policy. The structure of the legislature incorporates two aspects- size and the number of chambers. The size of a legislature is not linked to the power it wields as a large body could find it difficult to act as a single cohesive unit. In the 19th century, parliaments in Europe had the unique freedom to control the government because there was an absence of mass parties, party discipline and the ruling elite belonged to the same social class as the government which meant that changes in government would not cause any instability. However, today, Parliament has become synonymous with popular sovereigntyand the need to organise the popular vote has given rise to mass parties. Gradually, members of the legislature have lost their independence and the legislature has lost its substantial power over the government that it once wielded. Despite this, the legislature is still viewed as a mechanism that will keep in check the activities of the government and in a democracy, will represent the aspirations of the people and how far it is successful in performing these roles is a measure of its effectiveness. It has been argued by some political scientists that legislatures are in decline and this thesis is closely linked to the argument that most legislation is initiated by the government and is easily passed by the legislature in a parliamentary democracy. Since law making and policy formulation is often seen as the primary function of the legislature, it is argued that the failure to defeat, modify or affect legislation in any manner is a reflection of the growing impotence of parliaments.
The powers of a legislature are affected by both internal and external factors. It has been argued by Philip Norton, that logically, legislatures have no control over these external factors. The first of these is the position of the legislature as demarcated in the Constitution. The legislature could be denied the right to make laws in certain spheres, and legislative measures could be overturned by judicial review. Other external factors include the party system and various procedural factors. However, all powers of the legislature may not be constitutionally defined. Some powers develop or deteriorate with political practice and most of these relate to the executive. Here it must be mentioned that executive-legislature relations have tended to dominate political discourse regarding legislatures to the exclusion of the non-decisional roles that a legislature can play. However, while the powers of the legislature vis-à-vis the executive are important, and show a definite decline in some spheres, they may not and should not be the only judge of the value of legislatures and legislative systems. Before we discuss the other kinds of power that a legislature can wield, it would be prudent to examine how the legislature deals with government measures and legislative proposals.
Law making has traditionally been seen as the chief function of the legislature. Recent criticism of the failure of legislatures centres around the argument that they are now ‘law effecting’ bodies rather than ‘law making’ ones. In most parliamentary systems it is difficult for a parliament to reject government measures, since for the most part, the government is an integral part of the legislature and exercises control over it as long it as the support of the majority of members. This means that the fate of most legislation is pre-ordained. Critics have also pointed out that legislatures do not initiate new measures, a task that is again left to the executive. Thus it would seem that with regard to the law making function that the legislature is completely dominated by the executive. However, the logic of a parliamentary democracy is such that if a government has sufficient strength in parliament, in the form of a majority, overwhelming or not, would indicate a degree of public support for the policies of the party in power or the principal party in a coalition. It is for this reason that legislatures, who are expected to embody popular sovereignty and the will of the people, find it difficult to oppose government measures. There are other factors as well such as the development of the party system, but they shall be referred to later. Moreover, the apparent busyness of a legislature may actually hide the lack of any real powers. While some legislatures may pass a number of amendments, another may be less successful. However, in the case of the former, the amendments themselves might be irrelevant, minor and trivial whereas in the latter case, the single amendment may be a path breaking one. Hence, the quantity of legislation that a legislature handles is a poor indicator of its strength. Thus, it would be futile to use this power as a parameter to judge the effectiveness of a government and we must look at other measures to do so.
While a legislature may not be able to defeat a government measure, modification of bills is far commoner. This is particularly true of the American Congress. A bill introduced in the Congress, after having been dealt with by the various committees could emerge in a completely different form. Thus, committees are an integral part of the power that a legislature wields with regard to legislation and policy making. Committees have three functions- to consider bills and financial proposals, to scrutinize government administration and expenditure and to investigate matters of public concern. While in the Commons, floor activity and debate is important, in the Congress, it is the working of these committees that are significant. Gordon Smith argues that much of the strength of a parliament is vested in the way its committee system is structured. There is an inverse relationship between these committees and the power of the government. A number of small committees may be less amenable to government pressure than a single large one. Also as committees develop specialisation, committee expertise is generated which may run counter to the policy of the party or govt. This is true of the American case, where a committee can kill a bill or spawn sub committees. Although not mentioned in the constitution, they are crucial to the functioning of the Congress. In 1994, the Senate had 20 permanent standing committees and 87 subcommittees employing a staff of over 3000 and covering a wide range of expertise. In party dominated legislatures, however, committees have less influence and do not always challenge executive dominance in framing legislation. In this regard, European parliaments would rate rather lowly as there is substantial party control and a government committed to a piece of legislation will not tolerate committee obstruction for long. In France, committees are largely ineffective as a legislative majority is required to set up a committee and so the government can prevent the setting up of a potentially embarrassing committee. Moreover, ministers can refuse to cooperate with committees and instruct those under them to do so as well. Finally, committees receive very little exposure in the French media and have no public impact whatsoever. However, the concept of parliamentary committees has now been adopted by most West European parliaments. Most political scientists now argue that through these committees parliaments are beginning to regain some of their lost powers vis-à-vis legislation. A good example of this is the German Bundestag which mainly works through various specialised standing committees which have a large degree of autonomy. They not only function as watchdogs but also subject the legislative drafts to minute discussion after the first reading. A lot of inter party co-operation takes place in these committees and the government may make concessions in return for the opposition support for the bill as a whole. Almost 60% of the bills are amended at the committee stage. However, these committees do not have autonomous decision making powers and prepare recommendations which are voted upon on the floor of the House. The government or the Bundesrat suggests most substantial amendments.
The conclusion one draws is that committees might be the instrument that legislatures use to fight back executive dominance in the future, but they are not yet completely free of executive influence. Hence, they remain part of the legislative armoury but do not exert any degree of substantial influence. Most of the changes that committees introduce in European parliaments are usually minor and trivial and most major amendments would require the active involvement of the executive. To look at the powers of parliament through merely its law making functions and its relations with the executive seems to portray a decaying and one-dimensional view of legislatures. While these powers are important and demonstrate that legislatures have indeed been losing ground to the executive, they do not tell the whole story. There are other powers, non-decisional ones, that a legislature can exercise, which must be taken into consideration when evaluating its effectiveness.
The first arena where a legislature can demonstrate its effectiveness is with regard to government formation. This is linked to the fact that legislatures are instruments of legitimacy. This function becomes even more apparent when you examine the role of a legislature in a dictatorship which serves the same purpose, of providing legitimacy but is in reality, a sham: possibly as a result of rigged elections, and have little popular support. Legislatures in liberal democracies have gained a degree of popular acceptance both at the elite and at the mass level. Parliaments can also make or break governments. However, this is confined to parliamentary systems. In the US, the President can be removed by a process of impeachment in the Congress, but this is a procedure that has been rarely used. Usually in a first past the post system, one party has a clear majority and this means that as long as the party has the support of its backbenchers it will remain in power. However, in a PR system, there are usually coalitions as one party fails to get a majority. Here the assembly becomes a crucial arena where governments are made and smaller parties can strike a hard bargain. Election results could offer different possibilities. There can be two options- one, where changes in government fortunes depend solely on the results of elections and another where changes are internal to the legislature and elections results play a peripheral role. Now, in the single party government, the composition of the government has been decided by the election and the assembly plays a nominal role. However, where there is a coalition, there are numerous possibilities. First, coalitions could have been informally agreed to before elections. Here, alignments are known in advance and party campaigning is carried out on that basis. The second case involves bargaining after the elections and it is here that the role of the legislature in government formation becomes important. (West German alliances in the 1970s are a good example of both systems). Thus, it is possible for governments to change within the legislature without any elections and the role that a legislature can play in deciding the fate and shape of a government is decisive.
Another crucial function that a legislature must perform is that of recruitment. After the elections, in most parliamentary systems, ministers are recruited from within the legislature. However, in France, ministers must give up their assembly seat after the elections and cannot be compelled to answer questions in the National Assembly. In some countries, even non-party persons may be given portfolios. The legislature provides a training ground for politicians and future ministers who spend many years in the assembly learning about the rules of the parliamentary game and maturing as a full time politician. However, the process of recruitment and training of politicians cannot be tangibly measured and used as a yardstick for the effectiveness of a parliamentary system but it nonetheless plays a significant role.
A legislature is also a chamber of debate. As such a chamber, it acts as a safety valve which is a fascinating and neglected aspect of Parliamentary systems. With government impinging more on the lives of citizens, their grievances against the government will increase as well and this needs to be channelised. This can be done through parliamentary means. The strength of the parliament can be judged by how effectively it performs its communications functions, as devices for providing and passing on information that will form the basis of decisions reached in other parts of the political system and debates are integral to communication between the executive and the legislature. The most striking example of this is the gladiatorial style debates in the Commons that receive wide publicity. The German Bundestag is considered by many to be a ‘working parliament’ and has often been criticized for not being effective as a debating chamber. This demonstrates that is not only legislative efficiency that is important for a parliament’s proper functioning and that representation of the views of the members in the open, and not in closed committees is integral to the legitimacy of the parliament. The American Congress has often however misused this right to ‘talk a bill to death’ through what is known as filibustering where a member of the Senate speaks for hours on end till the matter is dropped from the agenda. While this is an extreme case, on the other end of the spectrum some have argued that parliaments today have become mere debating chambers and that this is not a helpful criteria to judge whether a parliament is effective or not. Related to this is the content of the deliberation not merely its nature. If an assembly has the right to choose and set its own agenda without being bullied by the executive, possibly through the role of a presiding officer, the legislature is likely to be more effective.
While control over legislation has been given primacy by many political scientists, scrutiny of the government and its administrative wings is also equally important. It enables parliament to check the activities of the government and especially the quality of governance. This can be done through various methods- questions, interpellations and emergency debates and committee investigations. Questions are used frequently in the Commons where over 70,000 questions are asked every year and all ministers must face questions from time to time. However, in countries like France, ministers are not duty bound to answer such questions. An interpellation is a question followed by a vote. Emergency debates bring a matter of national importance to the attention of the government and although the government normally wins the vote following the debate, the significance lies in the debate itself, which usually receives much publicity. Committee investigations are used frequently in the US where there are over 3000 staffers in the committee. It is also evident that these questions and debates are linked to the earlier point about deliberation and are used as a safety valve by MPs to express the grievances of members of their constituencies. This has become an effective weapon in recent years with most countries now televising the proceedings from parliament. This means that a minister who is repeatedly embarrassed on the floor of the house will find it difficult to seek re-election and the opposition can use the media as tool to propagate their point of view which may not be possible if they are in a significant minority within the parliament. As legislation becomes more complex and specialised, and is carried out within committees, debates, questions and emergency motions gain importance not just symbolically but also as a method of linking the people to parliament.
Linked to this power of scrutiny is that of control over the expenditure. However, in many democracies today it has become a nominal function. Frequently the executive prepares and presents the budget and minimal change, if any at all, is made by the legislature. There is often time pressure put on the legislature (90 days in case of Israel) within which the budget must be passed or else there will be a constitutional deadlock or the dissolution of the leg. However, the Congress has substantial powers with respect to budget making and taxation. The raising and spending of money is the ultimate form control by Congress over the administration. The broad outlines of the budget are usually beyond the control of both the President and the Congress. What then takes place is an elaborate game of tug-of-war between the two branches of govt. This is an area where the Congress has tried to tenaciously maintain its hold. The normal pattern is for the House to reduce the amount demanded by the Pres substantially. The Senate will then suggest a much higher figure but lower than what the President wants and eventually a conference committee will approve of a consensus figure.
The final task of a legislature is representation. Ideally, a legislature should be a microcosm of society. But is hardly ever possible, since proportional representation of each segment of society would require quotas in the election (the Indian system has quotas for those castes that were considered ‘backward’ and a bill reserving 1/3 of the seats in the lower house for women has been under consideration for a while, and is a source of much controversy). Most members of parliament would give special consideration to the needs of their constituencies and this is especially marked in the American case where this would overshadow party loyalty if there were any clash of interests. The confidence the people have in a legislature is a key component of this function of representation. There is little link between policy affect and how citizens perceive their legislature. Some assemblies may fulfill symbolic rather than instrumental functions. While in the USA, a strong national body headed by an executive would be cause for discomfort, in others; the notion that the government must govern prevails. Hence, in Britain and France, coalition governments and periods of cohabitation are looked upon negatively. It must also be remembered that expectations of legislatures vary as well and despite their problems, legislatures have over time built up their own diffuse support systems. Whether people actually contact their MPs to air their grievances, how they do so, whether these grievances are addressed and in what form are all part and parcel of judging whether a legislature effectively represents the people who elect it.
It is pragmatic to accept that legislatures cannot control legislation emanating from the executive to the degree they might like to or ought to. However, if this is the sole criterion for judging the effectiveness of a legislature, we must then accept that they are declining. This is perhaps an exaggeration and hence other factors and functions performed by a legislature enter the picture. It is imperative that we remember that a legislature could have relations with other parts of the political system other than the executive such as the judiciary and political parties. So, a legislature considered to traditionally reactive, such as the British Commons actually dominates over the legal system and no legislation approved by the Commons can be overturned by a process of judicial review. Also, while party cohesion and unity is often seen as a threat to the powers of a legislature, recent years have seen the growth of independent backbench voices and a leader will ignore these at his own peril. Finally, while the committee system is perhaps the key to the regeneration of the legislative structure vis-à-vis the executive, it is restrictive to view diverse legislative systems through such a narrow prism. The decline of legislatures and the growth of government activity would naturally imply that liberal democracy was suffering which is clearly untrue. Thus, we must look beyond the quantity and nature of legislation that a parliament deals with and examine it from the perspective of those who really count- the citizens who elect it. Despite, what political scientists may have to say, it is really the opinion of the people whom the parliament seeks to represent that will determine the longevity and durability of the legislative institution. While the role of legislative proposals is a key component of the how effective a parliament can be, other powers such as those of scrutiny, debate, control over the budget, and a role in government formation, will tend to gain in importance as legislatures will use these to regain the legislative ground they have lost to the executive. Hence, a parliament that has considerable legislative powers such as the Congress will continue to be classified as a powerful legislature but other parliaments that perform these various functions effectively, must not be considered completely irrelevant and ought to be given their rightful place in any analysis of the broader political system of a country.