Legislative bodies

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Bicameralism, the principle of constitutionalism that requires the legislature to be composed of two chambers (or houses), is a feature of the United States Constitution and of the constitution of every state except Nebraska. Bicameralism is supposed to guarantee deliberation in the exercise of the legislative power, by requiring that measures be debated in and approved by two different bodies before becoming law. It is also one of those "auxiliary precautions" by which constitutional democracy is protected from the mischiefs latent in popular self-government.

Bicameralism is not distinctively American; there were bicameral legislatures in the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, and there are bicameral legislatures in most countries of the world today. Bicameralism is found in the constitutions of nondemocratic countries (such as the Soviet Union) as well as of democratic countries. And, despite historical association with disparities of social class, both legislative chambers in democratic countries—emphatically including the United States—are typically chosen in popular elections; in countries where one house is chosen other than by election, that house is significantly less powerful than the elective house. Moreover, although it is the practice of most federal nations (such as Australia, Switzerland, and the Federal Republic of Germany) to reflect the constituent sovereignty of the states in one house of the legislature, there are bicameral legislatures in countries where federalism is unknown.

The American colonists came originally from Britain and were familiar with the british constitution. In Parliament, as the Framers knew it, there were two houses with equal power, reflecting two orders of society: the House of Lords comprising the hereditary aristocracy of England (together with representatives of the Scots nobility and the ecclesiastical hierarchy), and the House of Commons representing the freeholders of the counties and the chartered cities. Seats in the House of Commons were apportioned according to the status of the constituency (five seats per county, two per city), not according to population.

The local lawmaking bodies in the colonies were originally unicameral. Bicameralism was introduced in Massachusetts in 1644, in Maryland in 1650, and (in a unique form) in Pennsylvania in 1682; but in each case the "upper house" was identical with the governor's council, and so performed both legislative and executive functions. In the eighteenth century, all of the colonial legislatures but one were bicameral, with a lower house elected by the free-holders and an upper house generally comprising representatives of the wealthier classes. At the same time the upper houses (although retaining the name "council") became distinctly legislative bodies.

When the newly independent states began constructing constitutions after 1776, all but Pennsylvania and Georgia provided for bicameral legislatures. Typically, the upper house was elected separately from the lower and had higher qualifications for membership, but it was elected from districts apportioned on the same basis and by electorates with the same qualifications. In two states, Maryland and South Carolina, the upper houses were elected indirectly.

The continental congress, although it conducted a war, negotiated a peace, and directed the collective business of the United States, was never in form a national legislature. Even after its status was regularized by the articles of confederation, the Congress was a body composed of delegates selected by the state governments and responsible to them. A bicameral Congress was neither desirable nor feasible until Congress became the legislative branch of a national government.

The delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 agreed at the outset on a bicameral national legislature. In the virginia plan, membership in the first house of Congress would have been apportioned according to the population of the states, and the second house would have been elected by the first. The great compromise produced the Congress as we know it, with the house of representatives apportioned by population (described by james madison in the federalist #39 as a "national" feature of the Constitution) and with equal representation of the states in the senate (a "federal" feature), so that Congress itself reflects the compound character of American government.

The two principles of apportionment serve to insure that different points of view are brought to bear on deliberations in the two houses. That consideration is also advanced by having different terms for members of the two houses; a shorter term bringing legislators into more frequent contact with public opinion, a longer term permitting legislators to take a more extended view of the public interest. The priority of the House of Representatives with respect to revenue (taxing) measures and the association of the Senate with the executive in the exercise of the treaty power and the appointing power also tend to introduce different points of view into legislative deliberations. Until abolished by the seventeenth amendment, the election of senators by the state legislatures also contributed to the formation of different viewpoints.

The principal justification for bicameralism is that it increases and improves the deliberation on public measures. But bicameralism is also a device to protect constitutional government against the peculiar evils inherent in democratic government. One must guard against equating democracy, or even majority rule, with the immediate satisfaction of the short-term demands of transient majorities. As The Federalist #10 points out, a faction—a group whose aims are at odds with the rights of other citizens or with permanent and aggregate interests of the whole country—may at any given time amount to a majority of the population. Although no mechanical device can guarantee that a majority faction will not prevail, the bicameral structure of Congress operates to make such a result less likely than it might otherwise be.

The Supreme Court cited the importance of bicameralism in the American constitutional system as one reason for striking down the legislative veto in immigration and naturalization service v. chadha (1983). According to Chief Justice warren e. burger, that device permitted public policy to be altered by either house of Congress, contravening the belief of the Framers "that legislation should not be enacted unless it has been carefully and fully considered" lest special interests "be favored at the expense of public needs."

Bicameralism is also a principle of American constitutionalism at the state level. At one time representation of the lesser political units, typically the counties, was the rule for state upper houses. In reynolds v. sims (1964), however, the Supreme Court held that such schemes of representation resulted in the overvaluation of the votes of rural citizens relative to those of urban and suburban citizens and that they therefore denied the latter the equal protection of the laws in violation of the fourteenth amendment. Some commentators, both scholars and politicians, predicted that imposition of the one person, one vote standard would spell the doom of bicameralism at the state level. However, no state has changed to a unicameral system since the Reynolds decision.

Even more than to the innate reluctance of politicians to abolish any public office, this fact is testimony to the independent vitality of bicameralism as a constitutional principle. Even when territoriality is removed as a rationale, the desirability of having a second opinion on proposals before they become law cannot be gainsaid. Hence there is a tendency in the states to find ways of giving their upper houses a distinct perspective. The ordinary differentiation is by the size of the chambers and the length of the terms of office. Some states have tried, with the Supreme Court's approval, to preserve the territorial basis of the upper house by creating multimember districts in the more populous territorial units.

The meaning of constitutionalism in a democratic polity is that the short-term interests of the majority will not be allowed to prevail if they are contrary to the rights of the minority or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the whole. The permanent and aggregate interests are not represented by any person or group of people, but they are protected by a constitutional system that requires prudent deliberation in the conduct of lawmaking. Bicameralism is an important constitutional principle because, and to the extent that, it institutionalizes such deliberation.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Eidelberg, Paul 1968 The Political Philosophy of the American Constitution. New York: Free Press.

Wheare, Kenneth C. 1963 Legislatures. New York: Oxford University Press.

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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 ways in which members are selected, including inheritance, appointment by various bodies, and direct and indirect elections.

In most bicameral legislatures, the lower chamber predominates. Especially in parliamentary systems, in which the cabinet is responsible for the parliament, ensuring that the cabinet is responsible only to one chamber is critical. 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.

A majority of the worlds parliaments are unicameral. However, in 2000, 37 percent of the worlds 178 parliaments had two chambers. This proportion has decreased since World War II as several established democracies have abolished their second chamber, and as new, unitary, and postcommunist states have adopted unicameral assembly. 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.

According to the political scientist Andrew Heywood (1997), the major benefits of bicameralism are:

  • Second chambers check the power of first chambers and prevent abuses of majoritarian rule.
  • Bicameral assemblies more effectively check the power of the executive, because there are two chambers to expose the failings of government.
  • 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.
  • Second chambers act as a constitutional safeguard, delaying the passage of controversial legislation andallowing time for discussion and public debate.

    The major drawbacks are:

  • Unicameral assemblies are more efficient, because the existence of a second chamber can make the legislative process unnecessarily complex and difficult.
  • Second chambers often act as a check on democratic rule, particularly when their members are nonelected or indirectly elected.
  • Bicameral assemblies are a recipe for institutional conflict in the legislature, as well as government gridlock.
  • 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 Congress, U.S.; Parliament, United Kingdom; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems


Heywood, Andrew. 1997. Politics. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan Press Ltd.

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

Guy-Erik Isaksson

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BICAMERALISM. SeeLegislatures .


Legislative bodies