It seems strange to me that the USA is currently in a state where its leader can't actually get much done on his own.... He isn't in control of either legislature, the House nor the Senate

In the UK and most other political systems, the leader of the country (the executive not the head of state) is elected by way of a majority in the legislature, which in practice makes him as powerful as his majority. If he loses power in the commons (representatives) he loses power overall, and a sustained imbalance is impossible. In the UK the upper house (Lords, roughly akin to the Senate) cannot stop a bill, only delay it. Therefore the UK is essentially a single tier legislature with safeguards.

What are the real benefits of having a directly elected president, such that they outweigh the uncertainty and in-fighting of having a president with no control in either legislature?

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    I'm torn between VTCing as duplicate of all the existing questions discussing separation of powers in USA, and downvoting for asking an absolutely trivial question thoroughly covered in Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user4012
    Nov 12, 2014 at 13:51
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    Also, all those wars US got involved in since 1945 says your "can't get much done" seems slightly inaccurate :)
    – user4012
    Nov 12, 2014 at 14:06
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    Western politics, or American? I've never seen such an attitude in Europe? Either way, that's very off topic
    – Jon Story
    Nov 12, 2014 at 14:11
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    @JonStory the two being elected in unison defeat the whole purpose of separation of powers Nov 12, 2014 at 17:08
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    @JonStory Incidentally, the strain of ̶W̶e̶s̶t̶e̶r̶n̶ American thought DVK is referring to is Libertarian Conservatism. An interesting divergence from classical anti-war libertarianism. Nov 12, 2014 at 22:00

2 Answers 2


The inability of either branch to do things on their own is a feature, not a bug.

It's done that way on purpose to prevent any particular person or party from having too much control over the government


  • But surely if the next presidential election returns a Republican, you'll have all the power with that party? I'm solely talking about the times when it's different - the majority of the time it seems to have been the same party in control of most or all of those bodies .... Eg when Obama was elected democrats had all 3. It just seems strange to elect them on different dates, so some years you have harmony, others conflict
    – Jon Story
    Nov 12, 2014 at 17:10
  • It may have started as a feature but now it's a bug. As the first modern democracy (Corsica doesn't count as it only lasted 12 years) the United States had a lot prototype concepts. Some have worked out, some haven't. We forget that by today's standards, the founders weren't particularly confident in the principles of democracy. You only 'check' the power of the legislature and split off their executive powers if you don't trust the demos. Nov 12, 2014 at 21:24
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    @JonStory - All the power might be with that party, but that doesn't mean that the President and Congress will agree. Their overall goals will match better, but the way they want to accomplish things is different. That said, it's a lot easier to pass legislation when you have both parts. That said, if the people don't like what you do, they can vote you out of the House in 2 years.
    – Bobson
    Nov 12, 2014 at 21:34
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    "The inability of either branch to do things on their own" - that doesn't seem to be true, as GWB ursuped such a large amount of power for the executive branch ("I'll sign my own version of law, even if the congress voted it differently").. May 9, 2015 at 1:52
  • @MartinSchröder: I am unaware of this. Can you direct me to specific resources and references to this event? I.e. Which bill did GWB sign into law that "the congress voted it differently"?
    – sharur
    Sep 15, 2017 at 22:59

Separation of powers is a common justification for this state of affairs but it does not really explain anything as such. Another way to look at it is that the US constitution is really old. The fact is that the idea was very popular at the time the US constitution was drafted and apparently influenced it greatly.

And the US was charting new territory, there wasn't much past experience to look back on. Even the very idea of a written constitution in the modern sense was kind of new (there were a few like Corsica but most European states didn't have one).

For most of the nineteenth century, the main issue with this constitution was not its presidential nature or its effectiveness in enacting legislation but the question of “states' rights”. For the most part, states' rights advocates were defeated and the constitution took such a symbolic value that tinkering with it or drafting a new one like many countries have done during the last century now seems all but impossible. Plus the US did not go through any major defeat, foreign occupation or authoritarian regime of the kind that prompted thorough changes in several European countries.

But if you read Montesquieu, separation of powers was not necessarily meant as rigidly as it was implemented in the US. The practical difficulties are numerous and modern constitutions tend to take a more nuanced approach (hence the apparent peculiarity of the US system compared to much of what came later). More recent constitutions also tend to be (much) longer than the US constitution.

In the US, it does kind of work however because the lower levels of government and the courts have a bigger role than in many other countries, including England (I am not writing “the UK” because the institutions of Scotland and Northern Ireland also have extensive powers).

  • Accepted for answering the question, rather than defending the system that the question was about, thank you!
    – Jon Story
    Nov 17, 2014 at 17:32

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