Keep it simple!

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Keep it simple!

What is the question? – Then try to answer it in a simple way – do not try to make it too complicated. (You are only a first year student, they do not expect you to know everything)

Structure your arguments and make sure the conclusion answer the question in accordance to your argumentation and structure.

Grade: 12


This paper revolves around the role of legislatures in the policy-making process of Western democracies. It will first define important types of legislature and examine the main roles of the legislature, then it will discuss and compare the role of legislature in the policy-making process with the emphasis on initiation, autonomy of the legislature and the individual member of the legislature in the American system and in the Danish system, and in the end it will evaluate and discuss whether the role of the legislature in the policy-making process should be increased or decreased in the context of Western democracies by highlighting the importance of committees in the legislature.


Definitions of the main types of legislature

A definition of a legislature is “a body of persons having the power to legislate” or more specifically “an organized body having the authority to make laws for a political unit” (Merrian-Webster online in Kreppel 2008, p. 160). There are two main types of legislature system; the parliamentary and the presidential. In the parliamentary system the legislature is elected by the citizens and the executive is selected by the legislature. The system is characterized by flexibility. The executive branch can be removed by the legislature at any time with a vote of no confidence, and the executive branch can dissolve itself and thereby dissolve the legislature with a new general election (Olsen, 2010). In the parliamentary system the legislative and executive branches share powers, and the legislature is usually defined as a parliament which is “the supreme legislative body of a usually major political unit that is a continuing institution comprising a series of individual assemblages” (Merrian-Webster online in Kreppel 2008, p. 160). In the presidential system the executive and the legislature is elected separately by the citizens. The legislature can only dissolve the executive if it is a matter of incapacity and high crimes. The legislature is more independent but there is also more veto players and that is not good for the efficiency. The power is distributed between the legislative and executive branches, and the term congress is usually used as the name of the legislature which is “the supreme legislative body of a nation and especially of a republic” (Merrian-Webster online in Kreppel 2008, p. 160).

The roles of legislature

In the political system legislatures have many different roles. However three of them are the most important activities for a legislature, and they are linkage and representation, oversight and control, and policy-making. Linkage and representation is between the citizens and the legislature where the citizens are the principal and the legislature is the agent. Oversight and control is between the legislature and the executive. In this relationship the legislature is the principal and the executive is the agent. The latter two activities are important and will through the paper be developed a bit further to be connected to the important matter in this paper which namely is the role of legislature in the policy-making process. Now, in the policy-making process the legislature can be both the principal and the agent, yet this is not so important for this comparative study because the vital thing is here the power of the legislature in policy-making.

The amounts of power legislatures have differ from country to country and to measure it, it is important to study the directly impact on policy-making. According to Kreppel (2008) the most important ways for a legislature to have influence are through consultations, delays, vetoes, amendments and initiations. These tools are used differently depending on the political system, the formal and informal procedures of the country and on what kind of policy it is. To delay legislation is a weak tool because it is only effective if the executive branch wants to have rapid action, where delay can be used to bargain. The right to veto is only effective if the executive branch has a strong incentive to change status quo policy (Kreppel, 2008). So to veto and delay are negative tools which only empower the legislature to a certain extend. On the other hand consultation, amendment and initiation are positive and the latter two can be very powerful. Consultation is though a weak tool because it only gives the right for the legislature to air its opinion and whether the executives want to listen or not is up to them. However consultation is a way for the legislature to create a public debate when they disagree with the executives’ proposals and in this way consultation can be linked to the activity of linkage and representation. The debate function is often used by legislatures without so much direct control over the policy-making, and thus the debate can function as an indicator of the role of legislatures in policy-making in different countries (Kreppel, 2008). When it comes to amendments, the important thing for the legislature’s power is the constraints of amendment because constraints influence the amendment capacity of the legislature. Constraints vary in ways of limiting. One limit could be that the amendment shall take place in a certain stage of the legislation process as in Spain or that the legislature only is allowed a certain amount of amendments as in Austria. Amendments make together with initiations an important indicator of how significant the positive role of the legislature is in the policy-making process. “The actual rate of legislative success in terms of the transformation of amendments and initiatives into law is likely to be the most accurate indicator of a legislature’s ability to positively influence policy outcomes” (Kreppel, 2008, p. 169). By comparing legislatures through these five tools it may give a good sign of the legislatures’ relative ability to directly impact the policy-making process, and it is important because the power of legislatures is measured upon this (Olsen, 2010). In the next section the comparison between Denmark and the USA put special emphasis on initiation and it will illustrate how important this tool is for the legislature.


The role of legislature in the policy-making process

The role of institutions in policy-making is vital because they “lend legitimacy, universality, and coercion to policies” (Knill and Tosun, 2008, p. 508), and when it comes to specific institutions, it is crucial how the relationship between legislative and executive functions. In the presidential system power is concentrated and the power of the executive and legislative branch is fused in the classical parliamentary manner (Knill and Tosun, 2008). This is especially important in the separation-of-powers system in the USA because the system ensures that none of the three branches, legislative, executive and judicial, becomes too powerful, and that the executive and legislative have defined areas in which they possess power. The role of the legislature, the Congress, in policy-making is that all initiatives for proposals must formally come from the Congress and this gives the Congress a huge of power. Especially when this example is compared to Western European countries where 80-90 per cent of proposals that success come from the executive’s initiative, it illustrates a huge difference in the legislature’s importance and influence in policy-making (Kreppel, 2008). This might indicate that even though Western Europe is a mix between presidential and parliamentary system, there is a tendency that the executives have more power when it comes to initiation of bills. However, it will not be developed any further and the following comparison will not take it into consideration in the comparison of Denmark’s and the USA’s legislature. Denmark is a parliamentary system where the executive branch is selected by the legislature, Folketinget, and where the power is shared between the executive and legislative branch. This does also include the right to initiate bills, though it is normally the government that initiates nine out of ten bills (Nørgaard-Petersen, 2008). So if the USA and Denmark are compared when it comes to legislature’s role in the policy-making process where the focus is on initiating, then the Congress has a much more important role than the Folketing. One of the explanations for this may be found in the autonomy of the legislature.

The level of autonomy for the legislature depends very much on its role to the executive branch. If the legislature is an active and effective player in the policy-making process it achieves a higher degree of autonomy than a legislature that has a more passive role. Which degree of autonomy the legislature has then depends on the two aspects of “the independence of the institution as a whole” and on “the independence of its members individually” (Kreppel, 2008, p 182). As the USA being a separation-of-powers system where the legislative and executive branch is elected independently, it is able to have a higher degree of institutional autonomy, compared to Denmark as a fused-powers system where the executive branch is selected by the legislature, and where the power of the legislature to do so reduces the autonomy of the legislature in policy-influence. An important reason is also that because of the separate election in the US, there is an absence of a clear partisan link between the legislative and executive branch, where there in Denmark is a clear partisan link because the legislature selects the executive, and therefore the US legislature enjoys a higher degree of autonomy and thereby has a better potential to play an active role in the policy-making process (Kreppel, 2008).

The other aspect, the independence of individual members of the legislature, again shows that the American legislature enjoys a higher degree of autonomy than the Danish legislature in influencing policy-making. The important factors are here the character of the party system and the relative level of party independence that the individual member enjoys from his party which again depends on the party system. The question for the party system is whether to what extend the individual candidates depend on the party leaders when it comes to election or re-election and achievement of policy goals (Kreppel, 2008). At a very basic “the greater the party leadership’s control over a member’s re-election, the smaller the member’s autonomy” and “the more centralized a political party, the less room for independent decision-making by individual members” (Kreppel, 2008, p. 184). In Denmark the electoral system is proportional representation where candidates are ordered in list in multi-member districts and the ordering is decided by the individual parties. Together with the fact that Danish parties are very centralized, the conclusion is that the individual autonomy in the legislature is lower than in the American. This is because the American political system is a two-party system with first-past-the-post single member districts and the individual candidate is therefore not as dependent on his party as the Danish candidate, and because the party system is decentralized, the parties do not have a huge control over individual decision-making.

The conclusion is thus that in the comparison and discussion of the role of legislature in the policy-making process in the case of Denmark and the USA, the American legislature enjoys a more autonomous role and can influence policy-making process in a much more vital way than the Danish legislature. However there are other factors that play a central role which are not considered in this comparison. Some of them could be how different party members in the legislative and executive branches can negotiate, collaborate and make coalitions when it comes to certain policies. The balance of power between parties and the political culture play a very important role in policy-making and in this comparison it might give the Danish legislature a little more influence than if it was taken into consideration. Nevertheless, it is not to be developed any further in this paper.


The concern of the legislature’s role in the policy-making process

Studies show that there is an overall declining in influence of the legislature and that the executive branch has a lot of power today when it comes to the policy-making process (Jewell, 1978 and Kreppel, 2008), and this concerns many scholars because it concentrates too much power in the executive branch and the balance of power will be too unequal, and therefore the role of the legislature needs to be increased. One of the ways to solve this could be to strengthen the committee system because legislatures seek influence on policy-making through committees. The legislature is organized internally in different committees and the effectiveness and specialization of these are of great importance for the legislature’s role. The committees have different roles in different legislatures. “In some cases committees are responsible for reviewing and amending proposals before the full plenary discusses them, in others they are in charge of implementing the changes decided by the plenary” (Kreppel, 2008, p. 178). Committees can through these tasks influence the policy-making process, and thereby the legislature also influences policy-making. Earlier on the conclusion was that the American legislature plays a vital role in the policy-making process and this can again be supported by the argument of importance of committees. A comparative analysis of the committee system in the 1970’s placed the USA as having the strongest committee system compared to Italy, West Germany, Philippines, Canada, Britain, India and Japan (Jewel, 1978).

When it comes to Canada the concern with the distribution of influence and participation in policy-making has made the scholars Kornberg and Mishler (1974, in Jewell, 1978) examine the area, and through a study of the Canadian House of Commons they have proposed that the autonomy of the individual legislatures that do not hold a leadership post needs to be strengthened in order to reinforce the role of the legislature. This can be done through the strengthening of committees where the MP’s can gain a voice. However a series of studies have shown that institutional and procedural changes to committees have had little impact on the influence of the policy-making process in the Canadian Parliament. The argument is that party discipline is too important in committees and that changes can only happen if the government is willing to accept it (Jewell, 1978).

Nevertheless committees also have another important role for the legislature besides strengthening the voice of the individual MP and that is oversight of the executive. With the general declining in influence on policy-making process of the legislature the oversight of the increased power of the executive has become more important. To have better oversight of the executive, the legislature must increase the effectiveness of committees and it is argued that this can be done through more rational committee structure and more adequate personnel (Jewell, 1978). However, if the legislatures will strive after more effectiveness, they need to take into consideration the individual legislature’s political culture and special needs in the process of changing the committee structure for it to work, and not end up like it did in the Canadian parliament where it did not have big impact because of the overruling party discipline.

In the end it is important to note that even though the role of the legislature in the policy-making process may need to be increased in many countries, it can be discussed whether the role of the legislature needs to be increased in all countries. It can for example be argued that it is too big in the USA. President Obama faces a tough Congress because the partisan link between legislative and executive branch was weakened by the last mid-term election in November. The president’s ability to enact policies now depends on the Republicans in the Congress and his capability to influence the policy-making process has decreased (The Economist, 2010). Many Americans believe that this is an important factor about their system that they can counterbalance the power between the Democrats and the Republicans so no party will gain the absolute control. Nevertheless it can also be argued that the Congress to a certain extend completely enables the president to fulfil the job as head of the executive branch. However there is no agreement on this subject and for the future it looks like it will stay the same.


There are two main types of legislature systems. The first is the parliamentary system where the important factor is that the executive is selected by the legislature and that they formally share powers. The other is the presidential system where the executive and legislative branches are elected separately by the citizens and where power is separated between them. The role of the legislature in the policy-making process differs in the two systems but overall the legislature has five tools it can use to influence. The weakest are delaying and vetoing the legislative process and consultation with the executive, while the most important are amendment and initiation.

Initiation was one of the important factors together with the autonomy of the legislature and the individual MP in comparison of the Danish and the American legislature’s influence on the policy-making process, and it showed that the two different political systems had legislatures with very different influence on policy-making. The American legislature had a big influence in the comparison which mainly was because it enjoyed initiation right, had autonomous MP’s because of low party leadership control, high decentralization in the party system and an electoral system that emphasises the individual candidate, and which in the end are some of the reasons why the legislature also is very independent in the relationship with the executive branch. The Danish legislature on the other hand does not enjoy as big influence as the American. This is because of the legislature’s role in selecting the executive branch which creates interdependence, the centralized party system with a strong party leadership and the dependence on the party when it comes to re-election of the individual candidate. However, other factors need to be considered to be able to get a more specific picture in the comparison of the two legislatures’ influence.

The concern about the decreased role of the legislature in the policy-making process has made some scholars examine the area and they have come up with some solutions many of them concerning the importance of the committees’ effectiveness because this plays a vital role in the policy-making process. Canada has already tried to intervene in the structure of the committee system but it has only had a little impact because they had not foreseen obstacles as political culture hereunder party discipline. Other scholars have suggested that the oversight function of committees should be stressed because of the increasing role of the executive this function especially become important. Nevertheless there is no clear answer or specific solution to this concern and the study of the area needs to be increased. There is also no clear sign that all countries’ legislature experiences a decreasing role in the policy-making process and this can especially be argued in the case of the USA.



  • Kreppel, Amie (2008), Legislatures, Caramani (eds.), Comparative politics, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, pp. 159-188

  • Knill, Christoph and Tosun, Jale (2008), Policy-making, Caramani (eds.), Comparative politics, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, pp. 495-519

  • Jewell, Malcolm E. (1978), Legislative Studies in Western Democracies: A Comparative Perspective, Campbell, Colin and Clarke, Harold D. (eds), Legislative Studies Quarterly,, Comparative Legislative Research Center, pp. 537-554

Power point shows:

  • Olsen, Hans Peter (2010), Legislatures, Political Science – Lecture 5


  • Nørgaard-Petersen, Jakob (2008), Politik og teori i praksis, URL (accessed 20th December 2010)

  • The mid-terms: The latest thumping (2010), The Economist, 6th – 12th October, Volume 397, pp. 49-51

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