's Comparative Politics/The Role of the Executive Branch

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The United States President and the British Executive: Her Majesty's Government

The United States President

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In the United States, the Executive Branch, which executes and enforces the laws, is headed by the President and the Vice President. In addition, it includes the executive departments, which deal with general topics, and the heads of departments, who are known as Secretaries (Attorney-General in the Department of Justice). Each Department, in turn, is divided into a number of bodies, which are known as agencies, services, commissions, councils, bureaus, authorities, offices, administrations, and boards.

The President

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The President is the highest elected official in the United States.


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The Constitution grants the President a numbers of powers, including:

  • to implement laws passed by Congress.
  • Representing the United States in foreign affairs. The President has the power to enter treaties and executive agreements with foreign countries. Treaties must be approved by the Senate, but supersede any existing federal law, whereas executive agreements do not supersede existing law.
  • Command of the armed forces.
  • Veto power over bills passed by both houses of Congress. Congress can only override a presidential veto by a 2/3 vote.
  • Nominating Supreme Court justices, executive officials, ambassadors and other public officers. By default, the Senate must grant its advice and consent before the nominee takes office.

minor officials to be appointed by the President only, or by the head of a department, by passing a law to that effect.

  • Removing high-level executive officers at any time and for any reason. The President's power to remove lower-level executive officials may be limited by Congress, however.
  • Pardoning any person who has been convicted of a crime, except impeachment and civil contempt.


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If the President vacates office for any reason whatsoever, the Vice President becomes President. After the Vice President, the line of succession is as follows:

  • Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • President pro tempore of the Senate
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Attorney General (Department of Justice)
  • Secretary of the Interior
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • Secretary of Homeland Security

The Secretaries are included in the order of the creation of their respective departments. The Secretary of Homeland Security was promoted from last to eight in the Line of Succession.

Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA), Chairman of the House Policy Committee and Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, along with Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX), Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Rep. David Vitter (R-LA), Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), introduced H.R. 2319, a bill to amend the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

Since the constitution only allows native born Americans to serve as President, any Secretaries who are naturalized citizens would be skipped in the succession.

The Vice President

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The Vice President's only executive function in the Constitution is to become President in the event that the President dies or is incapacitated. The 25th Amendment provides that this may occur when:

  1. "the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary;" or
  1. "the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Additionally, "whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress."

In practice, the Vice President often takes an active role in policy making.

The Vice President also serves as president of the Senate, but cannot vote except to break a tie.


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Each state is entitled to choose a number of Electors equal to the number of Representatives and Senators it elects to Congress. Thus, a state will choose no less than three electors- two for the Senators, and one for the minimum of one Representative.

The state may choose its Electors in any way it pleases. However, all the states allow the people to choose all Electors. Forty-eight states use the following system: each candidate nominates a panel of electors. When a voter votes for a candidate, he or she actually votes for the nominated panel. Then, the candidate who wins more votes than any other candidate has his nominated panel appointed. Thus, a candidate who does not necessarily win all the votes will receive all of the state's electors. The exceptions to this system are Maine and Nebraska. These states allow a candidate to nominate one state panel of two electors, plus one elector for each district. Then, the candidate who wins the state has his two-member state panel appointed as electors, while the candidate who wins an individual district has his or her nominee for that district appointed. In all cases, the election for the Electors is held on the same day as Congressional elections.

Regardless of how they are chosen, the Electors all assemble in their own states in December. The manner of the voting by Electors has changed. Firstly, the following is the original system:

  • Each Elector casts two votes for President. One of those votes must be for a person not an inhabitant of the same state as the Elector. Then, if a candidate receives the votes of a majority of Electors becomes President, while the runner-up becomes Vice President. If one compares the Presidency to a gold medal, then one may say that the Vice Presidency was like a silver medal.

If, however, no candidate received a majority, then the House of Representatives would choose one of the top five candidates as President. In voting for President, each state casts one block vote. In any case, whichever other candidate holds the greatest number of votes other than the candidate elected President becomes Vice President. In case of a tie for second-place, the Senate elects the Vice President.

  • The above system seems to allow for all contingencies, but it did not allow for the development of political parties. Prior to the election of 1800, parties did not nominate candidates. However, in 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party nominated Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. The pair won a clear majority of the votes. However, both had an equal number of Electoral votes. Though the original intention was clearly for Jefferson to become President and Burr to become Vice President, the House still had to vote to choose one or the other as President. The House votes tied thirty-five times until Jefferson was finally elected President.
  • In order to prevent a recurrence, the Twelfth Amendment was passed. Under the Amendment, the electors would vote separately for President and Vice President. In each case, a majority was required for someone to be elected. If no majority was apparent for President, then the House would choose among the top three candidates, again voting by states. Similarly, the Senate would vote between the top two candidates for Vice President.

The District of Columbia chooses Electors like the other states, but the District can in no event choose more Electors than any other state.

Executive departments

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At present, there are fifteen executive departments. They are the departments of:

  • Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Department of Commerce (DOC)
  • Department of Defense (DOD)
  • Department of Education (ED)
  • Department of Energy (DOE)
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • Department of Labor (DOL)
  • Department of State (DOS)
  • Department of the Interior (DOI)
  • Department of the Treasury
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Each department is subdivided into a number of agencies, bureaus and other divisions.

Executive agencies

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In addition to the Cabinet departments, there are certain independent bodies which are not part of any department, but report directly to the Executive Office of the President. These include:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
  • Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR)

The Cabinet

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The Cabinet currently consists of the Vice President, the White House Chief of Staff, the heads of each executive department, and the heads of the EPA, OMB, ONDCP and USTR.

The British Executive: Her Majesty's Government

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Her Majesty's Government is the executive political authority for the United Kingdom as a whole. At its heart is the Cabinet, a grouping of senior Ministers of the Crown, headed by the Prime Minister. Members of the Government are political appointees, and are usually drawn from one of the two Houses of Parliament. In addition to the heads of the Departments of State (most of whom carry the title of Secretary of State), the Government also includes junior ministers (who bear the title of Under Secretary of State, Minister of State, or Parliamentary Secretary), whips (responsible for enforcing party discipline within the two Houses), and Parliamentary Private Secretaries (political assistants to ministers).

When the Sovereign is the King, the Government is referred to as His Majesty's Government; likewise, when there are joint Sovereigns, the Government is known as Their Majesties' Government.

Prime Minister

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The Prime Minister (or "PM") is the head of the Government. Since the early twentieth century the Prime Minister has held the office of First Lord of the Treasury, and in recent decades has also held the office of Minister for the Civil Service.

The Prime Minister is asked to form a Government by the Sovereign. Usually this occurs after a general election has altered the balance of party political power within the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is expected to have the confidence of the House of Commons; this usually means that he or she is the leader of the polical party holding the majority of the seats in the Commons. Since at least the 1920s the Prime Minister himself is also expected to be a Member of Parliament (i.e. member of the House of Commons). The Prime Minister retains office until he or she dies or resigns, or until someone else is appointed; this means that even when expecting to be defeated at a general election, the Prime Minister remains formally in power until his or her rival is returned as an MP and asked in turn to form a Government.

By convention, the Prime Minister and his or her Government is expected to resign if losing a vote in the House of Commons that has been asserted in advance by the Government as a matter of confidence; for example, if major legislation is rejected. The same applies if the Government is defeated by an actual Commons vote of "no confidence". An alternative option for the Prime Minister in either of these circumstances is to ask the Sovereign for a dissolution of Parliament, in effect allowing the electorate itself to approve or disapprove of the Prime Minister's policy. A request for dissolution is usually granted; however, in certain circumstances the request may be refused, in which case the Prime Minister would again be expected to resign.

The existence and basis of appointment of the office is a matter of constitutional convention rather than of law. Because of this, there are no formal qualifications for the office. However, a small number of Acts of Parliament do make reference to the Prime Minister, and since the 1930s office has carried a salary in its own right.

The Prime Minister is often an extremely powerful figure within the political system; the office has been said by some to be an "elected dictatorship", and some Prime Ministers have been accused of being "presidential". A weak Prime Minister may be forced out of office (i.e. forced to resign) by his or her own party, particularly if there is an alternative figure within the party seen as a better choice.

Cabinet and other ministers

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Membership of the Cabinet is not defined by law, and is only loosely bound by convention. The Prime Minister and (if there is one) the Deputy Prime Minister are always members, as are the three most senior ministerial heads of Departments of State: the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (commonly known as the Foreign Secretary), the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. the minister responsible for finance), and the Secretary of State for the Home Department (commonly known as the Home Secretary). Most of the other heads of departments are usually members of the Cabinet, as well as a small number of junior ministers.

Ministers of the Crown are formally appointed by the Sovereign upon the "advice" of the Prime Minister. Ministers are bound by the convention of collective responsibility, by which they are expected to publicly support or defend the policy of the Government, or else resign. They are also bound by the less clearly defined convention of individual responsibility, by which they are responsible to Parliament for the acts of their department. Ministers are often called upon to resign who either by their own actions, or by those of their department, are perceived in some manner to have failed in their duty; however, it usually takes sustained criticism over a period of time for both a minister to feel compelled to resign, and for the Prime Minister to accept that resignation. Occasionally a minister offers his or her resignation, but the Prime Minister retains them in office.

Parliamentary Private Secretaries are also bound by the principle of collective responsibility, even though they hold no ministerial responsibility and take no part in the formation of policy; the position is seen as an initial stepping-stone towards being offered ministerial office.

Privy Council

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Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council is a ceremonial body of advisors to the Sovereign. The Privy Council is used as a mechanism for maintaining ministerial responsibility for the actions of the Crown; for example, royal proclamations are approved by the Privy Council before they are issued. All senior members of the Government are appointed to be Privy Counsellors, as well as certain senior members of the Royal Family, leaders of the main political parties, the archbishops and senior bishops of the Church of England, and certain senior judges.

The Privy Council is headed by the Lord President of the Council, a ministerial office usually held by a member of the Cabinet. By convention the Lord President is also either the Leader of the House of Commons, or the Leader of the House of Lords, with responsibility for directing and negotiating the course of business in the respective House.

Meetings of the Privy Council are usually extremely short, and are rarely attended by more than a bare minimum of Privy Counsellors.