In government, bicameralism is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers. Thus, a bicameral parliament or bicameral legislature is a parliament or legislature which consists of two Chambers or Houses.
Although the ideas on which bicameralism is based can be traced back to the theories developed in ancient Greece and Rome, recognizable bicameral institutions first arose in medieval Europe where they were associated with separate representation of different estates of the realm.
The Founding Fathers of the United States eschewed any notion of separate representation for a social aristocracy, but they accepted the prevailing disposition towards bicameralism. However, as part of the Great Compromise between large states and small states, they invented a new rationale for bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally and the lower house would have them represented by population.
In subsequent constitution making, federal states have invariably adopted bicameralism, and the solution remains popular when regional differences or sensitivities require more explicit representation, with the second chamber representing the constitutent states. Nevertheless, the older justification for second chambers – providing opportunities for second thoughts about legislation – has survived. A trend towards unicameralism in the 20th century appears now to have been halted.
Growing awareness of the complexity of the notion of representation and the multifunctional nature of modern legislatures may be affording incipient new rationales for second chambers, though these do generally remain contested institutions in ways that first chambers are not. An example of political controversy regarding a second chamber has been the debate over the powers of the Canadian Senate.
The relationship between the two chambers varies; in some cases, they have equal power, while in others, one chamber is clearly superior in its powers. The first tends to be the case in federal systems and those with presidential governments. The latter tends to be the case in unitary states with parliamentary systems.
Some political scientists believe that bicameralism makes meaningful political reforms more difficult to achieve and increases the risk of deadlock (particularly in cases where both chambers have similar powers). Others argue strongly for the merits of the 'checks and balances' provided by the bicameral model, which they believe helps prevent the passage into law of ill-considered legislation.
The different sorts of bicameralism
Some countries, such as the United States, India, Brazil, and Germany, link their bicameral systems to their federal political structure.
In the United States and Brazil, for example, each state is given a set number of seats in the legislature's upper house. This takes no account of population differences between states — it is designed to ensure that smaller states are not overshadowed by more populous ones. (In the United States, the deal that ensured this arrangement is known as the Connecticut Compromise). In the lower houses of each country, these provisions do not apply, and seats are won based purely on population. The bicameral system, therefore, is a method of combining the principle of democratic equality with the principle of federalism — all votes are equal in the lower houses, while all states are equal in the upper houses.
In the Indian and German systems, the upper houses (the Rajya Sabha and the Bundesrat, respectively) are even more closely linked with the federal system, being appointed or elected directly by the governments of each Indian State or German Bundesland.
Many bicameral systems are not connected with federalism, however. Japan, France, the Phillipines, and Ireland are examples of bicameral systems existing in unitary states. In countries such as these, the upper house generally exists solely for the purpose of scrutinising and possibly vetoing the decisions of the lower house.
In a few countries, bicameralism involves the juxtaposition of democratic and aristocratic elements. The best known example is the British House of Lords, which includes a number of hereditary peers. The House of Lords represents a vestige of the aristocratic system which once predominated in British politics, while the lower house, the House of Commons, is entirely elected. Over the years, there have been proposals to reform the House of Lords, some of which have been at least partly successful — the number of hereditary peers (as opposed to life peers, appointed by the government) has been reduced to 92 out of around 700, and the ability to the House of Lords to block legislation has been reduced.
See also: Lower House, Upper House, Unicameralism, List of national legislatures, Tricameralism
Last updated: 02-06-2005 22:17:01
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55