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  • What Makes Legislatures Strong?
  • Thomas O. Melia (bio)
The Handbook of National Legislatures: A Global Survey. By M. Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 800 pp.
Legislative Power in Emerging African Democracies. Edited by Joel D. Barkan. Lynne Rienner, 2009. 277 pp.

Aspiring democratic leaders from many corners of the world are often surprised to learn that the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 did not begin the U.S. Constitution by creating the presidency and assigning powers to the holder of that office. Instead, after the famous Preamble, the first Article of the world's oldest extant democratic constitution describes the powers of Congress; the presidency waits until Article Two. This order, moreover, is no accident: The legislature possesses considerably more constitutional power. It can impeach and unseat a president, after all, whereas the chief executive has no authority to dissolve Congress. Even the president's power to name judges, military officers, and ambassadors to carry out executive policy is qualified by a requirement that the Senate must first give its "advice and consent" regarding such appointments.

Today, more than 220 years on, U.S. president (and former senator) Barack Obama is discovering anew how formidable the presidential task of dealing with Congress truly is, even at a time when the president's own party holds large majorities in both houses on Capitol Hill. Like many of his predecessors, he is absorbing the sobering truth of the aphorism that "the president proposes, but the Congress disposes."

How powerful is the U.S. Congress? How powerful should it be? How [End Page 166] powerful should any legislature be in a modern democracy? How should constitutional architects of new or potential democracies frame the powers of a legislature? After all, countries do not actually need legislative assemblies; at least not in the way that they need executive officials and judges. Governments have existed throughout human history, whereas legislative assemblies have been present only in some societies.

In their Handbook of National Legislatures: A Global Survey, M. Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig have undertaken an ambitious effort to catalogue every one of the world's existing national legislatures, scoring each according to the degree of "official power" (the quotation marks are the authors') that it commands. In explaining the value of the exercise, Fish and Kroenig briefly discuss the established scholarly classification of parliamentary, semipresidential, and presidential systems. As they note, "the conventional distinctions among constitutional systems do not fully specify where power resides. And where power resides is what matters for real-life politics and government" (2). The Handbook is therefore based on a "legislative powers survey" of their design that was completed by scores of national and international experts. The survey poses 32 questions about key aspects of institutional influence, questions that mostly lend themselves to "yes" or "no" answers.

Adding up all the "yes" answers yields a country's score on a Parliamentary Powers Index (PPI) that measures the national legislature's aggregate strength. Nine of the 32 questions are about the legislature's influence over the executive: Can it select or oust a president, appoint or confirm ministers, can legislators serve in the executive, and the like? Nine questions ask about the body's institutional autonomy: Is it free from presidential veto or dissolution, do members enjoy immunity from prosecution, and so on? Another eight examine specified powers: Does the legislature authorize war, ratify treaties, and influence or appoint heads of the judiciary, the central bank, and state-run media outlets? The final six questions examine the legislature's institutional capacity: Are its members experienced, and do they have the staff and other resources to support their work?

The PPI will prompt discussion about whether Fish and Kroenig have identified the 32 most appropriate aspects of institutional power, and, if so, whether it is wise to accord each aspect equal weight in their numerical calculations. Statisticians and methodologists may ponder whether the questions are properly framed in a consistent, unambiguous manner. For instance, is it good technique to pose a double-barreled query such as Question 24, which asks whether "the legislature reviews and has the right to reject appointments to the judiciary; or...