Congress vs. Parliament: Main Differences

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  • 0:01 Background
  • 1:11 Candidates Are Selected
  • 2:09 Legislature
  • 3:38 How a Law Is Passed
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will review the major differences between Congress and Parliament. We will take a closer look at why these differences exist and how they affect decision-making in those particular democratic countries.


Parliamentary democracy and congressional democracy are two systems of government that are utilized in democratic governments. Parliamentary democracy is a system of democratic governance in which the executive branch is held accountable to the legislative branch and the head of government is almost always a member of the legislature. The Parliament is the legislative branch of a parliamentary democracy. This type of democracy is found in Britain and in free, independent countries that Britain used to rule.

Conversely, a congressional democracy is a system of democratic governance in which the executive branch is separate from the legislative branch and the head of government is not a member of the legislature. The Congress is the legislative branch of a congressional democracy. This type of democracy is found in the United States and a few other democratic countries.

While these two systems of government have similarities, they also have a few very important differences that we will be looking at during this lesson.

How Candidates Are Selected

If you wanted to become a member of Parliament, the first step would be to ask members of your political party to put your name on the ballot. Then the political party makes a decision whether or not to put your name on the ballot. Most political decisions in parliamentary democracy are made by people following their party line and making very few individual decisions. Then the public votes on the candidate to officially elect them to Parliament.

In sharp contrast, political decisions in congressional democracy are mainly made by the people - even though support by a political party is common. Candidates for Congress have their careers, ambitions and plans looked at individually by the people and are elected mainly based on these attributes. Although it is possible and common to have the support of a political party, it is not necessary.

Membership in Legislature

In Parliament, the majority party selects its prime minister, who is the official head of government and also serves with his cabinet members of the legislature. What this means is that members of Parliament aren't able to make independent decisions from what the majority party and the head of government want because they are all part of one lawmaking body. Put simpler, because the head of state (the executive branch) and the Parliament (the legislative branch) are so intermixed, they must always vote to support each other or else the government will not succeed.

In Congress, the members have more freedom. The president, who is the official head of government, is elected popularly by the people, and he independently chooses members of his cabinet from people that are not members of Congress. The head of government does not participate in the legislature. The members of Congress, although some may be members of the same political party as the president, do not have to answer to him directly and can make independent decisions.

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