Parliament vs Congress

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Parliament-CongressConcept description

In his 2012 chapter (reference below), David Docherty compares the strengths and weaknesses of the national legislative bodies of Canada and the United States. (See also Democratic Deficit.)

Docherty describes legislatures as “the key link between citizens and the state” (p 183) and says:

“Legislatures are the heart of a democratic society. This is where the laws of the land are debated, altered, approved, or rejected. The US Congress and the Canadian Parliament are two models of liberal democratic legislatures, each of which poses its own challenges with respect to the democratic deficit and the quality of democracy in the two countries. Like all institutions of government, legislatures are far from perfect. Some assemblies may have strengths in some elements of representation (such as powerful individual members) but major weaknesses in others (such as an inability to achieve consensus on large policy issues). Some assemblies might have too much authority vested in too few hands but have more freedom to quickly respond to a crisis; others may disperse power widely but be unable to act effectively or quickly.” (p. 181)

Docherty notes that the strengths and weaknesses are rooted in the fundamental difference between the governmental systems in Canada and the United States, i.e., between:

  1. Westminster-style parliamentary government, with its concept of “responsible government” characterized by a close link between legislature and executive and by concentrated authority; and
  2. Separation of powers, with its checks and balances, and its dispersal of authority.

He compares Canada and the United States on each of the three principal functions of legislatures: 1) representation, 2) legislation, and 3) accountability.


He notes that :

“Equality of population is not a factor in either upper national chamber. California has the same number of senators as does North Dakota – two. The seat distribution of the Canadian Senate is set out in the original and amended BNA acts and is based on regional distribution. It provides twenty-four seats to each of the West, Ontario, Quebec, and the East. Newfoundland and Labrador were given seven seats when it entered Confederation in 1949, and the three territories each have one senate seat.” (p. 185)

However, one might expect more equality of representation in the lower chamber. Here, the Canadian constitutional guarantee that no province will lose seats as a result of population changes results in the House of Commons having much greater inequalities of representation than the House of Representatives. Docherty notes, for example, in the 2008 federal election Ontario and British Columbia had over 120,000 citizens per constituency whereas Prince Edward Island, Yukon, and Nunavut each had less that 40,000 (p. 184).

He notes that an important difference between members of the two houses involves the extent to which they hold office depends on their personal characteristics:

“Interestingly, there is little evidence that much personal voting occurs in Canada. Most studies indicate that incumbency rarely accounts for more than 5 percent of a local vote total; instead, party and leader are the largest determinants of electoral outcomes. By contrast, American legislators enjoy substantial personal and incumbency benefits, despite much larger districts.”

“… repeated electoral studies have demonstrated that a small but critical mass of Canadians do vote based on the merits of local candidates. However, this number pales in comparison to Canadians whose vote choice is dictated by party or leader. Turnover in Canadian parliamentary elections is far greater than it is in American elections. This may be due, in part, to the lack of influence of Canadian MPs, making the position far less attractive than that of an American senator or representative.” (p. 185-186)


Docherty notes:

“Aside from representation, assemblies play an important law-making role in democratic states. Here there is a stark difference between Canada and the United States. The US Congress is a powerful legislative body by any measure. Not only does it accept, reject, and amend legislative initiatives proposed by the administration, but it also initiates much legislation. Similarly, it not only accepts or rejects the administration’s budget proposals but also initiates taxing and spending proposals. (p. 186)

“… The legislative role of Congress starts from a different premise than does the legislative role of Westminster assemblies like Canada’s. As Mayhew points out in his seminal piece on Congress, the actions of all legislators are geared towards their re-election (reference below). Sponsoring, co-sponsoring, and actively engaging in the legislative process is a part of the re-electoral process that is virtually non-existent in Canadian assemblies. Private member’s bills in Canada have far less importance or chance of success than do bills either individually sponsored or co-sponsored in Congress. Further, the need to placate voters at home encourages the type of pork-barrelling legislation that has come to haunt the American system, something also absent from legislation in the Canadian system (largely because legislation in Canada is not directly connected to electoral success).” (p. 190)


Docherty writes:

“Differences in the oversight function also exist between the two assemblies. The notion of scrutiny, or accountability, is at the core of responsible government. Cabinet ministers are responsible for the actions and decisions of their respective departments, and all members of the House of Commons, including government private members, are responsible for holding cabinet to account for spending and the administration of public policies and legislation. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, many of them institutionalized in the rules and roles of House procedure. Unlike in the congressional system, in the parliamentarian system the fusing of the executive and the legislature promotes an adversarial relationship not just between political parties but also, and particularly, between Opposition parties and the executive. The focus then is not between competing legislators but, rather, between the prime minister and his or her cabinet and the Opposition, with its leader and shadow cabinet. And, in stark contrast to what occurs in the United States, this adversarial relationship is played out face to face every day the legislature meets.”

He describes the “Catch-22 of Question Period”:

“When accountability works best, it looks worst. If a cabinet minister has not lived up to executive responsibility or has transgressed rules of ethical behaviour, then it is typically during Question Period that these matters come to the floor. Opposition members, smelling victory over the government, are loathe to let up, while cabinet ministers fighting for their political lives will not back down unless told to do so by the prime minister. Yet even if the drama is unpleasant to watch, and the conduct of MPs often irresponsible, we cannot hide the simple fact that Question Period does produce the results it was designed for – namely, ensuring government accountability in a very public forum. An adversarial process can have positive results for effective scrutiny.” (p. 191)

Confrontation and deliberation

Docherty makes a similar point to Joseph Heath (see Heath’s Critique of the Democracy Deficit in Canada) in noting that both competition and deliberation play a role in the democratic functioning of a legislature:

“All legislatures face the charge that they are little more than arenas of partisan confrontation rather than arenas of consensus building and deliberation. Those concerned with fixing the democratic deficit have argued that a more civil and deliberative assembly focused on problem solving would have greater public legitimacy than would one filled with acrimony and vitriol. Whether true or not, such an assessment ignores the larger benefits provided by the confrontational nature of both Westminster and congressional democracies. They both provide choices about governments and potential alternative governments, and they both allow policies to be thoroughly debated, weighed, judged, and scrutinized.” (p. 186-187)

Reform initiatives

Docherty writes:

“There is still a great deal that could be done to improve the capacity of legislatures to properly represent voters and scrutinize the government. Yet, at the same time, we should not overlook some of the many strengths of the Westminster government as practised by Canadian assemblies. Westminster systems are nothing if not versatile, and Canadian assemblies have embraced some significant changes in the past two decades.

“C.E.S. Franks argues persuasively that high party discipline combined with the centralization of authority in the Canadian House of Commons has provided the necessary conditions for a more collectivist government (reference below). As a result, policies such as health care, national pensions, and employment insurance have become national policies that most Canadians hold as sacred. By contrast, the more individualistic-based US Congress has faced tremendous obstacles in passing legislation aimed at providing comprehensive national health care. More than one president’s plans to implement national programs have been foiled by a Congress that is more geared to local concerns than to pan-American policies.” (p.198)

“… to a considerable degree, the democratic deficits are mirror images of each other. In Canada, Parliament is weak and executive dominated; in the United States, Congress is strong and largely independent of the executive. Canadian reformers tend to ask: how can we empower legislators and have a more powerful legislature? For Americans, Congress’s widely dispersed powers mean legislative incoherence – seen in the proliferation of “earmarks” and in the legislative mishmash of such initiatives as recent health care legislation. American reformers – dating from the early 1960s appeal of a committee of the American Political Science Association for responsible party government in Congress – have called for something closer to the Canadian model: strongly led, disciplined parties that advocate clear programs. Stronger party discipline and stronger party leadership have developed in the United States, but the pattern remains very different from that in Canada.” (p. 200)

“Three elements of a democratic deficit do appear to have more purchase in the United States than in Canada. First, the pressures on American members of Congress are highly local because of their capacity to deliver local benefits through provisions in American laws. Canadian MPs certainly love to deliver cheques to their constituents, but their capacity to write these into legislation is much less than that of their American counterparts. Second, American legislators are by necessity virtually full-time fundraisers, raising the pervasive worry that they are beholden to their financial supporters. Canadian parliamentary candidates receive public funding, and their revenue-raising activities are highly circumscribed. Third, for the simple reason that they are more influential, American members of Congress are far more subject to pressures from lobbyists than are Canadian MPs.” (201)

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


David Docherty (2012), “Imperfect Legislatures,” in Imperfect Democracies: The Democratic Deficit in Canada and the United States, eds. Patti Tamara Lenard and Richard Simeon, pp. 181-203. Vancouver: UBC Press.

David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

C.E.S. Franks, The Parliament of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 15 August 2016.

Image: Cropped from Wikipedia, and, accessed 13 August 2016.