Lecture on how the US constitution impacts the President's clout

10 April 2013

The United States' constitution gives its President almost free reign on foreign policy but makes it extremely difficult to make changes on the domestic front, says a US constitutional expert visiting the Sydney Law School.

Professor Hal Bruff from the University of Colorado's School of Law is an expert in separation of powers law. He will next week deliver a seminar outlining the impact of the constitutional separation of the executive and legislative branches of government in the US.

Professor Bruff says the US constitution was deliberately designed this way in 1787 to ensure the legislature wasn't dominated by the President in the same way the United Kingdom's MPs were controlled by their reigning monarch. This was prior to the adoption of the doctrine of responsible government by the UK in 183X (and in Australia upon federation). Responsible government made MPs accountable to parliament instead of a monarch and could have been preferable in the US, says Professor Bruff.

"The difference is a function of historical flow," he says.

"In domestic matters the president often needs the assent of the Senate or the entire Congress before he can do anything. Current practices such as filibustering make this difficult to achieve."

In his address on Monday Professor Bruff will refer to headline grabbing issues like the fiscal cliff, gun control laws and judicial appointments to demonstrate the president's difficulty in making progress on pressing domestic issues.

He will contrast this with the free reign the president has on foreign policy, as commander-in-chief and director of the state and defense departments. Secret offshore raids leading to the attack on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, the 2009 cyber attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and ongoing drone attacks highlight President Obama's "almost unconfined" role in foreign affairs, he says.

"We don't want to hamper the important things he wants to do but the absence of control is troubling."

Professor Bruff says the constitutional conundrum in the US is almost impossible to fix. As in Australia, the constitution is almost politically impossible to amend and a lot of Congress members' votes are more influenced by local constituents rather than the greater national interest.

Harold Bruff is the Rosenbaum Professor of Law at the University of Colorado School of Law, where he was dean from 1996-2003. He has advised the White House and executive agencies on issues of constitutional and administrative law. He has testified before Congress many times, and has written several books and many articles on administrative law and separation of powers.

Monday's address is the third lecture of the 2013 Distinguished Speakers' Program at the law school. Lawyers and barristers attending will receive 1 MCLE/CPD unit.

Event details

What: The President and Congress: Separation of Powers in the United States of America 

When: 6 to 7pm, Monday 15 April, followed by a cocktail reception (registration from 5.30pm)

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus

Cost: $25, Sydney Law School alumni $20, University of Sydney students $10

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