Comparison: Parliament & Congress

Structural differences

The most significant difference between Congress and Parliament is the difference between a parliamentary or fused system and the presidential or separated system. This makes the relationship between the legislature  and executive quite different.

In Washington Congress is an equal partner in a system of ‘separated institutions sharing powers’, (Richard Neustadt) in the UK Parliament  dominates in a system based on the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, but in turn Parliament can  be seen to be dominated by the executive (most of the time) Malcolm Shaw (2013) concluded, ‘Parliamentary authority is concentrated in one chamber, on one side of that chamber, on the front bench of that side, and to an increasing extent in one man [or woman] on that bench — the prime minister.' While Richard Neustadt famously conclude the president's power over Congress is really only 'the power to persuade'

Members of Congress are constitutionally prohibited from simultaneously holding office in the executive branch and the president and vice president are selected independently of Congress for fixed terms of office and are removable by Congress only by impeachment. All other executive branch members, including the president’s cabinet, are entirely separate from Congress although many are subject to Senate approval.  In the UK  the government is formed from the leadership of the largest party in the House of Commons and the government can be removed by a vote of no confidence which triggers  an election.

There are also significant cultural differences.   The famous observation by Speaker Tip O'Neil that in the US 'All politics is local' still hold true and members of Congress still see themselves as their constituent's 'man in Washington'.  In the UL national politics dominates the political culture and  MPs know that their loyalty and their best hope of re-election is tied to the party. This is largely the result of party structures which themselves reflect the difference between a unitary and a federal system. The House of Lords  reflects the culture of  class privileged and reverence for tradition. The rational choice approach is useful in comparing the necessity for members of Congress to always be aware of the 'folks back home'. This culture of parochialism is unknown in UK politics. Another structural difference. is that members of the US House of Representatives have to face their voters every two years therefore  will probably need to be more attentive to their constituents than members of the UK House of Commons or their Senate colleagues who respectively serve five- and six-year terms.

However, the Lords is more professional and more diverse since the Blair reforms and Congress is mote partisan of recent years. A significant difference used to be the prevalence of compromise in Congress and the more uncompromising adversarial culture of Parliament.  This is far less obvious  as a result of political polarisation in the US. Party disciple which was traditionally weak in Congress when compared the UK is now much stronger.

While both Parliament and Congress re bicameral- having two chambers- in Congress the Senate and the House have equal legislative power while in the UK the  Commons  is far more powerful and the Lords is restricted to a revising and reviewing role. The House of Lords can propose amendments to legislation but in the end the Commons will usually prevail. In Congress thousands of bills are introduced in any one session. as  individual members introduce numerous pieces of legislation. In Parliament the government dominates the legislative agenda and timetable. In  the US the president will face regular defeats while in the UK a government defeat of any kind is rare. 

However, while the Senate and House are equal in legislative power, the Senate is more prestigious as a result of the longer terms, small membership and privileges of advice and consent over appointments and treaties. Former House members make up around half the membership of the Senate. But in Parliament, movement from the Commons to the Lords indicates either political retirement or failure

In Parliament the chamber of the House of Commons dominates the legislative process and is the centre of political theatre. As any visitor who has sat in he public gallery of either chamber of Congress will have observed- they are very dull places. The centre of political power in Congress is in committee. 'Congress in session is Congress on show; Congress in committee is Congress at work' (Woodrow Wilson) Congressional committees are min legislative chambers with the power to amend or kill legislation. 'Dead in committee' is the fate of many bills in Congress. Select Committees in Parliament have become more significant in their function of scrutiny, based on a Congressional model, but legislative committees are non specialist, temporary and dominated by the government.

Overall as Philip Norton observed , Parliament merely ‘legitimises legislation’ which has been formed and designed by the executive.  legislation is passed by Congress, but it is merely passed through Parliament. In Parliament, the Queen’s speech — written for her by her government — states that ‘My government will…’. In Congress, the president’s State of the Union Address asks Congress  to consider his ideas.

Philip Norton distinguishes between legislatures in terms of their policy-making role and identifies three different types: 

1. Policy-making legislatures, for example, the US Congress, which can formulate and substitute their own policy as well as modifying and rejecting proposals from the executive branch. 

2. Policy-influencing legislatures, for example, the UK parliament and the German Bundestag, which can modify and sometimes reject measures proposed by the executive, but cannot formulate or substitute their own policy. The European Parliament would also fit in here. 

3. Legislatures with little or no policy effect, for example, China’s National People's Congress, legislatures in former European communist states, which had no power to formulate, modify or reject executive proposals and met when they are required to formally approve policy that has already been agreed. 

Congress has far more oversight power than Parliament. Although Parliament can trigger and election via a vote of no confidence and the consequences of a government defeat if far more damaging for the government than any defeat a president might experience in Congress, these are rare. In  the US a president faces far more interference, examination and scrutiny than any government in the UK. For example, the fact that the Senate has oversight of all judicial and numerous executive appointments within the federal government gives Congress a reach in oversight quite unknown to the UK Parliament. The Senate’s power to ratify treaties gives another significant extension of its oversight powers that Parliament does not have. Congress also has more control over the budget than does Parliament. The passage of government's annual budget is a forgone conclusion, while in the US the president's budget is regularly referred to as 'dead on arrival'.

 Congress also has the specific power to declare war, although this has not been used in over seven decades. In the UK, the power to commit armed troops to conflict abroad is one of the remaining royal prerogatives —, powers that are derived from the Crown rather than from Parliament.- However, under David Cameron’s premiership, the power of Parliament in this area was significantly enhanced and it would now be politically very difficult for future governments to take any significant military action without prior specific approval from Parliament.

Congressional committees also have the power to subpoena  documents or witnesses which force their appearance. The most famous case being the Watergate tapes. Select Committees in the UK have limited powers to 'request people, paper and record' - although this has been enhanced by the Freedom of Information Act. Subpoenas of president Trump's tax returns are similarly subject to a legal battle.

Culturally an apparent contradiction to this picture of powerful Congressional scrutiny is the absence of anything like PMQs (Prime Ministers Questions) While members of the presidents administration can be questioned by committees the president will never face the ordeal of PMQs. The weekly mocking of the PM and the absence of anything similar in the US reflects the PMs position as a party leader who  is not afforded the same deference and respect as a president who is head of state. In a presidential system, the president is answerable directly to the people —those who elected him. Only three incumbent presidents have chosen to give evidence in person to a congressional committee Gerald Ford ,Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln.

Overall to understand Congress and Parliament it is important to understand first the structural differences and then the cultural and rational difference which are the result.


Committees in the UK and USA 


The committees responsible for pre-legislative scrutiny of proposed laws in the UK House of Commons are known as Public Bill Committees (PBCs). PBCs are temporary, set up for the life of a bill. There are usually around 18 MPs chosen by the whips to serve on PBCs, in proportion to the membership of the House. This gives the government a guaranteed majority. They rarely amend a piece of legislation without the approval of the government. In addition, the whips are wary of picking rebellious MPs, or those with expertise and criticisms of their proposed bills. Instead, they will choose new, ambitious and loyal MPs who will be more than happy to toe the party line. 

Legislation in Congress 

In the USA, pre-legislative scrutiny is far stronger. Following a bill’s first reading in Congress, it is then allocated to a committee. Unlike the UK, the committee stage comes before the second reading. Another difference is that in the UK, the leader of the House of the Commons decides the allocation of parliamentary time for bills. In the USA that task falls to the House speaker or Senate majority leader, who also decides which committee receives the bill. This is because of the US’s more formal separation of powers, which means that the president’s party won’t always have control of Congress. A major difference between the PBCs in the UK and the powerful standing committees in the US Congress is that US members tend to want to sit on them. This is because of the opportunity to ‘bring home the bacon’, otherwise known as pork-barrel politics. This is the term used for the opportunity to allocate additional spending, or ‘earmarks’ to bills, to benefit their own constituents. An infamous example of pork-barrel politics is the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska. The now-cancelled $398 million bridge was first proposed in 2005 and would have replaced a ferry to a remote island with only 50 residents. 

The fundamental differences between the UK and US post-legislative scrutiny committees are permanence and partisanship. 

Scrutiny and Oversight Committees

In the UK, permanent select committees follow the administration and impact of government policies and the conduct of ministers. In 2022, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released the results of their inquiry into the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, which concluded that it had been a ‘disaster’. Select committee members are elected by fellow MPs, and this bipartisanship delivers  effective and influential results, with approximately 40% of select committee recommendations being accepted by the government. Cross-government select committees such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Liaison Committee examine the work of the entire government and the prime minister specifically. The PAC is the oldest and most respected parliamentary committee and is always chaired by an opposition MP.( Case study Test and Trace) It scrutinises how the government spends public money and is often damning in its criticism of wastefulness. The Liaison Committee is made up of all the chairs of the departmental select committees. It submits the prime minister to an intense grilling several times a year.

 Unlike in the UK, US select committees are formed on a temporary basis, but they have a similar role: usually to conduct investigations into the impact of policies, events or matters of public interest. Both the House and Senate can form these committees, and there are examples of party delegations using them to embarrass the opposition party or their presidential candidate. The Republican-led investigation into Hillary Clinton’s role as secretary of state during the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, made headlines throughout Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. One power which is unique to the USA is held by the Senate, where committees may conduct confirmation hearings into executive appointments. These are usually uncontroversial, however increasing partisanship has  has led to long delays in appointing the presidents administration. and most nominees are confirmed by the committee, and subsequently the whole Senate, without incident. However, the life appointments of Supreme Court justices have become increasingly politicised and heated. 

In both the USA and the UK, becoming the chair of a committee is a coveted position. Since the Wright reforms in 2010, Parliamentary committee chairs have been elected and paid more, increasing their prestige and providing an alternative career route for ambitious parliamentarians. High-profile former ministers often become chairs, including Jeremy Hunt. 

In the USA the chairs always come from the majority party in both the House and Senate. Members who chair special investigatory or temporary select committees will often make a name for themselves as partisan inquisitors, while the chairs of standing committees have immense power to hand out dollars to federal projects. Committees in both the US Congress and the UK Parliament carry out similar functions but ultimately have three fundamental differences. 

First, UK PBCs are temporary, government-dominated and a weak aspect of scrutiny, while Congressional standing committees are permanent, powerful and not always dominated by the president’s party. 

Second, UK PBCs do not control whether a bill is debated, unlike the US standing committees, which can kill bills before the debate. 

Third, UK select committees are permanent, reasonably bipartisan, and capable of highly effective scrutiny, while their American counterparts are, often highly party-political, and not always formed to carry out sincere and policy-orientated scrutiny of the government.