Bicameral Parliamentary Systems

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Bicameral Parliamentary Systems

Parliaments can be organized in a number of ways, although two forms dominate modern democratic designs. Parliaments are unicameral or bicameral. In a unicameral parliament all members of parliament sit in the same chamber and vote on major policy decisions. In a bicameral parliament members meet and vote in two separate chambers, usually called the lower house and upper house. The lower house is usually based proportionally on population, with each member representing the same number of citizens in each district or region. The upper house varies more broadly in the way in which members are selected, including inheritance, appointment by various bodies, and direct and indirect elections. Moreover, the upper house can serve to represent ethnic, religious, or regional groupings. A majority of the world's parliaments are unicameral. However, in 2000, 37 percent of the world's 178 parliaments had two chambers. This proportion has decreased since World War II (1939–1945) as several established democracies have abolished their second chamber, and as new, unitary, and postcommunist states have adopted a unicameral assembly.

dimensions of bicameral systems

The characteristics of lower and upper legislative houses differ on a number of dimensions. There are variations in size, term of office, turnover, membership, representation, and institutional power. However, two particular dimensions have been emphasized. The first distinction is whether the two houses are of equal or unequal power. When the strength of the houses is very unequal, feeble (asymmetric) bicameralism exists, and when the strength is about equal, strong (symmetric) bicameralism exists. The second distinction is whether the two houses are similar or dissimilar in nature or composition. They are similar in nature if both houses are elected and they are likely to be similar in composition if both houses are elected with congruent electoral systems.

There are three main principles of selection to the upper house: direct election (used in twenty-seven of sixty-six upper houses as of 2004), indirect election (used by twenty-one), and some form of appointment, usually by the government (used by sixteen). A fourth method of appointment is heredity, which is historically common, but rare in present times. The British House of Lords is the only house in which this element is still present. Although most members are appointed by the government for lifelong terms, some hereditary peers remain.

The most frequently employed method of selecting upper house membership is direct election, in whole or in part, by a country's citizens. In parliamentary bicameral countries this kind of method is in use, for example, in Australia, Ireland, Italy, and Japan. Indirect elections are quite common and occur in such countries as Austria, Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. Finally, a method entailing full or partial appointment is employed in countries such as Canada and Germany.

In bicameral systems the two houses should complement each other in terms of power and representation. If the second chamber is very similar to the first chamber, it may prove ineffective, and if it is very dissimilar, the possibility of conflict between the houses will make cooperation difficult. Therefore, it is important that the system includes mechanisms for conflict resolution. One mechanism is the "navette," a consultative process whereby a bill shuttles back and forth until agreement is reached. Other methods are joint session and decision by one house.

In most bicameral legislatures the lower chamber predominates. There is no case in which the upper house is stronger than the lower house. Especially in

parliamentary systems, in which the cabinet is responsible for the parliament, ensuring that the cabinet is responsible to one chamber is critical. The cabinet cannot be responsible to two chambers. Usually, the upper house is able only to delay legislation passed by the lower house. Sometimes, the upper house can veto certain types of legislation. In Germany, for instance, the Bundesrat has veto power over legislation that affects the power of the states (the Länder). In Britain the House of Commons is the dominant partner: Ministers and governments emerge from the lower chamber and remain accountable to it. However, the lordships can currently delay nonfinancial legislation for a year. The Irish upper house can do no more than delay bills for ninety days. The term of the upper house varies between six years (e.g., Australia, India, and Japan) and nine years (France).

empirical findings

On all continents, unicameral assemblies are more common than bicameral ones. For the most part bicameral systems may be found in South and North America and Europe. On the contrary, in Africa and Asia bicameral systems are rather unusual. Several studies show that most federal systems have a two-chamber assembly. Countries with strong bicameralism are very often federal states. Moreover, bicameral systems are much more common in large countries than in small ones. This association is mainly a consequence of the fact that federal states usually are large. Finally, studies also show that older countries are more often bicameral than countries that have attained their independence in recent years.

benefits and drawbacks

The major benefits and drawbacks of bicameralism are, according to scholar Andrew Heywood, the following:

The benefits:

  1. Second chambers check the power of first chambers and prevent abuses of majoritarian rule.
  2. Bicameral assemblies more effectively check the power of the executive, because there are two chambers to expose the failings of government.
  3. Two-chamber assemblies widen the basis of representation, allowing each house to articulate a different range of interests and respond to different groups of voters.
  4. Second chambers can act as a constitutional safeguard, delaying the passage of controversial legislation and allowing time for discussion and public debate.

The drawbacks:

  1. Unicameral assemblies are more efficient, because the existence of a second chamber can make the legislative process unnecessarily complex and difficult.
  2. Second chambers often act as a check on democratic rule, particularly when their members are nonelected or indirectly elected.
  3. Bicameral assemblies can mean institutional conflict in the legislature, as well as government gridlock.
  4. Second chambers introduce a conservative political bias by upholding existing constitutional arrangements and, sometimes, the interests of social elites.

In terms of authority and political power bicameral legislatures show large variation. The weakest upper chambers are hardly more than retirement posts for politicians of great merit. On the other hand, with respect to political influence the strongest upper chambers are comparable with the lower chamber or the executive power.

See also: Elections; Germany; Ireland; Representation; United Kingdom.


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Hague, Rod, and Martin Harrop. Comparative Government and Politics. An Introduction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

Heywood, Andrew. Politics. Houndmills, UK: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997.

Lane, Jan-Erik, and Svante Ersson. Politics and Society in Western Europe. London: SAGE Publications, 1999.

Sartori, Giovanni. Comparative Constitutional Engineering. An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives and Outcomes. Houndmills, UK: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1994.

Tsebelis, George, and Jeanette Money. Bicameralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Guy-Erik Isaksson