Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Legislative Committees, Checking Power

Written by johnleemk on 2:22:40 pm Aug 23, 2007.

Amateur political scientist that I am, I have been quite interested in the marked differences between the American and Westminster systems of government. The difference in managing different branches of government is particularly intriguing.

However, even the way individual branches run themselves varies between these two systems. One feature common to the legislature in both the United States and the United Kingdom (whose democratic systems have formed the basis of most democracies around the world today) is that of committees.

An obvious question is what are and why do we need legislative committees? The answer is simple — the entire legislature cannot examine individual issues on a minute basis, cannot afford to look into every proposal. To weed out the good and bad accordingly, committees are usually necessary. Members with expertise in a particular area can sit on the committee, where they will have a stronger voice.

In the United States, legislative committees are particularly powerful. Much of this power is indirectly derived from the greater power of the legislature under the American political system, unlike the Westminster system which paradoxically dilutes the legislative branch's power by tying it to the executive branch.

In the US, significant decisions often rely on who controls a particular legislative committee. The home state of the senator who chairs the Appropriations Committee can expect barrels of pork, while the party out of power has little to show its constituents.

In the UK, even though the legislature is more powerful since it can topple the executive at its whim, its hands are tied because rejecting the budget proposed by the executive will topple the government — hardly a desirable consequence in most cases.

As a result, although committees exist, their power is considerably lacking. Their role in reviewing legislation is very subdued.

However, I am not entirely sure if all the difference in powers can be attributed simply to different roles for the whole legislative body.

In the US, legislative committees have often played a significant role in investigating certain issues, mainly because the legislature exists to keep the executive branch in check, but also because in the US, the legislators take a more active role in proposing bills.

A legislative committee might subpoena people to testify before it on a particular issue; it might hold hearings on a certain question which will be brought before the house. The committees in America are thus particularly empowered.

Although in theory Parliamentary committees may have similar powers, in practice one hardly ever hears of such hearings. If there are any at all, it should tell you how effective they are that one does not hear of them. There are "Royal Commissions", but these are set up at the behest of the executive, and dissolved once they have produced their findings.

In my view, although the American system of empowering legislators and legislative committees has its large pitfalls — pork barrel politics being the most obvious — it is a system that, on the balance, serves the people better. It is even possible that pork barrel politics can be significantly reduced in prevalence by implementing a system of proportional representation.

A system dominated by the executive, where the legislative agenda of the day is mostly determined by the party in power, is generally not healthy for the country or democracy. A system where legislators cannot or do not investigate possible abuses of power, and do not take the initiative in examining new areas to legislate on is a system where too much power has been concentrated in the wrong hands. For a healthy democracy, we must have empowered legislative committees.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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