The Executive and Legislative Branches of Government: A Relationship Dilemma

 The Executive and Legislative Branches of Government: A Relationship Dilemma

– Tareq Zahirul Haque*

The health of a government largely depends on the cooperation of its executive and legislative branches in exercising their delegated power. The doctrine of power balance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government is orchestrated by the constitution for maintaining a better functional relationship among them. However, a relationship dilemma between the executive and legislative branches is one of the fundamental challenges for both advanced and growing democracies. The conflict essentially arises when they come together to perform their assigned responsibilities. The legislative branch of the government entrusted for making laws and oversighting the operation of those laws, has the authority to inquire into as well as examine the processes by which the laws are enforced. Since the laws are enforced by the executive branch of government and is accountable to the legislative branch for such function, a tension between these two branches is created. This tension acquires an impetus as the executive branch enjoys supreme executive power and privilege to govern the country. The executive-legislative tension undercuts the performance of a government and therefore deserves a great consideration to find ways to attenuate such tension.


The aim of this literature review is to explore the in-depth understanding of the executive-legislative relationship dilemma and to unbundle the underlying causes of this dilemma with the aim of a possible solution. With these objectives, this paper starts with a brief overview on the executive-legislative relationship interface. It then examines the theoretical basis of dilemma followed by a review of empirical evidences from literatures. Finally, it suggests recommendations for future research in order to ease the relationship dilemma. Although both presidential and parliamentary/Westminster form of government are experienced by the executive-legislative relationship problem, this study has been narrowed down to only parliamentary form of government.


In a parliamentary system of government, the prime minister is the executive head and his/her cabinet is formed by the selected legislators of the ruling party and the members of other parties in the case of coalition government. The cabinet is the highest executive body which is delegated governing authority. This body needs for the support of legislative branch to remain in power. Legislators have power to remove government from office by no confidence vote if they have no confidence in them. The members of parliament (legislators), who are elected in meaningful elections, choose the prime minister from themselves through a formal vote in the parliament that usually requires an internal negotiation with the party leader. Since the prime minister possesses supreme political power, the rest of the cabinet ministers work in a collegial fashion where policy decisions are met by consensus. The cabinet is collectively responsible to the parliament/legislative branch for their actions. The political executives of the government such as the prime minister and other ministers are elected officials while the administrative executives (who are accountable to the political executives), are the permanent officials of the executive branch or government. Thus, the political executives are also the part of legislators.


Parliament is the formal institution of the legislative branch. Parliament as a forum, its efficiency to bring executive under accountable relies on how the functional relations between the various categories of legislators such as the executive legislators, the opposition legislators, the ruling party backbenchers (legislators other than the prime minister and ministers) and the all-party backbenchers, are maintained. In this forum of multiple relationships, executive legislators will justify their actions. The opposition bench will be involved in asking questions to ministers, criticizing ministers and trying to prove them (ministers) inept that might be pursued by a question of the governing failure of the entire government. Despite insignificant power of the non-governing parties to sanction executives for poor performance, they can bring the issue to the citizens and media’s attention by means of question and interrogation. To maintain a balanced relation of the executive legislators with all other legislators and the parliamentary oversight committees, a level playing field for all actors of the parliamentary forum is essential. In the absence of level playing field, how these relations are translated into a dilemma has been analysed in the two subsequent sections.


For better understanding of the dilemma between the executive-legislative relations, the principal-agent theory has been used. In parliamentary form of democracy the executive accountability to the legislative is better analysed along the chain of principal-agent relationships. In principal-agent model, agents perform certain delegated tasks according to principals’ preferences and thus agents are responsible for the tasks entrusted by principals. The performances or possible actions of agents rely on their incentives designed by principals. The problems of principal-agent relationship are the incompetency of principal to hold their agent accountable on account of the information asymmetry, incomplete contracts of employment, and difficulties of monitoring agent’s behaviour. Agents have information and expertise for their delegated tasks while principals do not have such information and expertise. Principals can only watch the output of the actions of agents but cannot directly oversight these actions due to the inadequate information and poor monitoring mechanism. Even when the agents’ behaviour can be observed, the principals usually cannot evaluate it due to the lack of expertise. Consequently, agents utilize this opportunity to maximize their own interest by ignoring principals’ objectives due to the moral hazard.

In executive-legislative relations, the executives are viewed as agents while the legislators are principals. The legislators as principals delegate the governing power to the executives who as agents are accountable to the legislators for their assigned tasks. However, the mechanisms by which the legislators hold the executives accountable are greatly undermined by some underlying factors depicted in the principal-agent theory such as information asymmetry, incomplete contracts, moral hazards and incentive. Thus, the relationship dilemmas are entrenched in some fundamental questions such as whether the mechanisms provide sufficient information about the behaviour of the executives to the legislators, whether the legislative oversight committees are well equipped to monitor and evaluate the actions of the executives, whether the arrangements assist to overcome the moral hazards of executive agencies and whether the contracts offer adequate incentives to the executives (agents) and as such they commit to enforce the laws approved by the legislators. All these questions are perceived as theoretical basis of the executive-legislative relationship dilemma. The next section explores the empirical evidences of dilemmas on the executive-legislative relations.


Evidently, the legislators have constitutional right of access to official information of executive affairs necessary for monitoring executives’ operations. Nevertheless, information asymmetry between the executive and legislative arms of government undermines the oversight functions of the latter. A number of factors relating to information asymmetry identified through empirical studies resemble how the monitoring functions of legislators are weakened. It is found that in many parliaments around the world, legislators suffer from the scarcity of information about the executive behaviours/activities owing to the unwillingness of the executive actors. This situation is further exaggerated as many legislators especially the new backbenches have limited expertise and technical knowledge about the administrative structures, organizations, functions, policies, rules-regulations of the executive branch


On the other hand, evidence shows that the executive leaders either administrative executives (bureaucrats) or political executives (experienced and influential ruling party legislators usually become the political executives), have much expertise and knowledge about the public services. These executive leaders enjoy some discretionary power to restrict information dissemination and thereby get privilege to pursue their own agendas. Thus, this information asymmetry between the executive and the legislative arms make an imbalanced relation that ultimately hampers the legislators’ constitutional responsibility to hold the executives accountable. The relationship dilemma with regard to information is naturally created since legislators have constitutional right to seek information from executives and executives have also discretionary power to retain the information.


Poor institutional capacity of the legislative branch is another potential factor stands in the way of functional relation with the executives. In almost all democracies, executive leaders such as the prime minister, cabinet ministers usually control extensive political power and economic resources. In addition, they have plethora of human resources committed to developing plan, policies, programme; producing bulk of laws and executing them; managing government deals; and administering government programme. On the contrary to executives,  the legislative branch usually suffer from the lacks of funding, skill persons, research support and workforce to contribute in making laws and monitoring executives. The above mentioned limitations of the parliamentary watchdog committees as well as the parliament as a whole are mainly the result of the non-cooperation of the executive branch. This is because; in many parliaments especially in developing countries the parliamentary secretary that provides the logistic support to the individual legislator and the various parliamentary committees, is under the control of the executive branch. Therefore, an inequality in terms of the capacity of the executive and legislative branches and a negligence of executives to minimize such imbalance is an inherent tension in their relations.


The empirical research also shows that the dominance of the executive branch over the legislative one is another vital feature of relationship dilemma. In a growing democracy despite the necessity of strong parliament, legislators are tremendously dominated by the cabinet members (executives). Though multiparty legislatures are appeared through democratic election in such countries, they seldom constitute strong parliament. New multiparty legislatures constantly suffer from the executive dominance due to the lack of their capacity and extreme partisan control. Even in advanced parliamentary democracy such as United Kingdom, Australia and Canada the executive dominance over the legislature and legislative process is a common phenomenon. In these democracies, the executives are usually backed by the majority of the legislatures to remain in office and to approve their legislative agendas to maintain their supremacy through the formation of one party majority government and the strict partisan politics.


In addition to the above factors of executive dominance, some other potential reasons of executive dominance over the legislators in some parliaments including Canadian provincial parliaments are: the low official work load of legislatures, small size of the opposition legislatures, selectivity of legislative press galleries and informal executive federation. Comparatively low work load of legislatures is partly responsible for the executive dominance as part-time legislatures have to face full-time executives. Due to the landslide electoral victory of the ruling party opposition legislators suffer from manpower crisis in parliamentary session. Media focus is also confined to the executive that undermines the importance of the legislative bench. Finally, informal coalition among the executive leaders to protect executive interests is also responsible for executive dominance.


To sum up, though the executive-legislative power separation is devised constitutionally to maintain a system of checks and balances between them, both theory and empirical study suggests that in parliamentary democracy, the executive branch remains in a strategically advantageous position which help them to maintain their superiority over legislatures. The executive leaders are provided with institutional support and adequate human resources to control extreme political power and to manage financial resources whereas the legislatures suffer from poor institutional capacity in terms of skill human resource, research and finance.  The executive leaders have also information, knowledge and expertise about the government affairs while the legislatures are usually lagging behind in this respect. Most importantly, political executive leaders are the most influential members in their political party who control their inferior backbenchers through strict party discipline. The opposition legislatures are also dominated by the political executives and ruling party backbenchers due to their small size in the parliament. Some other factors such as low work load of legislatures and media’s less attention, informal coalition of political executives are also liable for executives’ supremacy. The divergence of all above mentioned factors between these two principal actors of government is ultimately translated into a relationship dilemma, where democracy suffers.


In order to ease the executive-legislative dilemma, the capacity of the legislative branch must be developed through devising various pragmatic measures. The research mainly focuses on the causes of the executive-legislative relationship problem, but so far very little emphasis has been given on how to build the capacity of the legislative branch. Thus future research should give more emphasis on the designing of plans, policies or programs for enhancing the legislative branch’s capacity with the goal of executing the constitutional doctrine of power balance. Simultaneously, civil society, media and citizenry should raise increasing voice to put pressure on the government so that the executives cooperate to develop the institutional capacity of the legislative branch for greater public interest.

*The writer of this article is working as Deputy Director in the Head Office of Bangladesh Betar.

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