Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0003
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0003
Bicameralism refers to legislative systems that include two chambers. In presidential systems, both chambers are typically elected directly. In parliamentary systems, typically the first (or lower) chamber is elected directly while the second (or upper) chamber can be appointed, elected directly, or elected indirectly. Historically, bicameral legislatures were intended to represent the aristocratic interests in the second chamber and the interests of landowners in the first chamber. The dominance of aristocratic interests was ensured by granting the second chamber strong veto authority (i.e., the power to defeat bills) over all legislation. As universal suffrage spread, however, the ability of the unelected second chamber to dictate policy to popularly elected governments in the first chamber became untenable. To address this anomaly, governments responded by either (1) abolishing the second chamber, (2) granting the second chamber authority over issues relating to federalism, or (3) replacing the power to defeat legislation with the power to delay legislation (suspensory veto authority). Although most second chambers are tasked with policy refinement (i.e., improving legislation), the legislative studies literature has, until recently, concluded that once the veto authority of most second chambers was curbed, their policy influence was limited. The “conventional wisdom” that most second chambers are better suited for providing a soft landing for politicians on their way to retirement rather than as a venue for substantive policy debate and influence is being challenged, however, as governments have become increasingly reliant on the second chamber as a venue to introduce and debate legislation and as second chambers have become increasingly more willing to defeat government legislation. This debate has also found its way into political discourse as several governments debate reform, which would balance the ability of elected government majorities in the first chamber to pass their legislative agenda while protecting crucial policy refinement functions and expertise found in the second chamber. While the idea of abolishing the second chamber is sometimes raised by political parties that are underrepresented in the second chamber, in most advanced industrial democracies, modern institutional debates focus on reform rather than abolition of the second chamber.
Bicameralism is relatively understudied in the comparative legislatures literature, given the literature’s focus on chambers that are (1) elected directly and (2) possess strong veto authority. Nice overviews of bicameralism can be found in Bradbury and Crain 2004, Uhr 2008, and Heller and Branduse 2014 while a discussion of the historical foundations of modern bicameralism can be found in Tsebelis and Money 1997. Norton 2004 highlights the difficulties in determining what actually constitutes a second chamber, while Patterson and Mughan 1999 and Russell 2001 outline the functions that second chambers typically perform.
Bradbury, John Charles, and W. Mark Crain. “Bicameralism.” In Encyclopedia of Public Choice. Vol. 2. Edited by Charles Kershaw Rowley and Friedrich Schneider, 39–41. New York: Kluwer, 2004.
An overview of the justifications for bicameralism as well as a brief introduction to the literature pertaining to bicameral institutions and policy stability (see Bicameralism and Policy Stability).
Heller, William B., and Diana M. Branduse. “The Politics of Bicameralism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies. Edited by Shane Martin, Thomas Saalfield, and Kaare Strom, 332–351. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Reviews the literature relating to bicameralism, including the evolution of second chambers, as well as current debates relating to the policy influence of second chambers.
Norton, Phillip. “How Many Bicameral Legislatures Are There?” Journal of Legislative Studies 10.4 (2004): 1–9.
Provides a thought-provoking discussion of what actually constitutes a second chamber by investigating institutional patterns in systems typically classified as unicameral (Botswana, Iran, and the European Union).
Patterson, Samuel C., and Anthony Mughan. Senates: Bicameralism in the Contemporary World. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999.
Notes that bicameralism is understudied in relation to other topics within the literature on comparative legislatures. Also identifies the representation and redundancy functions associated with second chambers.
Russell, Meg. “What Are Second Chambers For?” Parliamentary Affairs 54 (2001): 442–458.
Article describes the historical justifications for bicameralism while outlining the functions that second chambers typically perform.
Tsebelis, George, and Jeannette Money. Bicameralism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
A detailed literature review examining not only the social choice literature on bicameralism (see Bicameralism and Policy Stability, but also the classic theoretical discussions for the precursors of modern bicameralism. Also includes information pertaining to veto strength, size, and electoral mechanisms of second chambers.
Uhr, John. “Bicameralism.” In the Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions. Edited by R. A. W. Rhodes, Sarah Binder, and Bert A. Rockman, 474–494. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Offers a thorough discussion of the theoretical foundations and modern justifications for bicameralism. Also provides an introduction to the literature using formal modeling in the study of bicameral legislatures.
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