Unicameralism And Bicameralism Essay

While legislatures are the most democratic of the institutions of governance, the second chambers of bicameral legislatures are typically less democratic, and thus have been supplanted by the main and newer chambers.


Historically, some parliaments have been multicameral. Sweden, until 1866, had four chambers, while South Africa recently had three, and Yugoslavia in the 1960s had five. Unicameral legislatures also become bicameral, as have Poland and Indonesia. The number of chambers, and especially the unicameral-bicameral choice, has varied not only among countries, but within a country through time. Of 181 national parliaments in 2000, sixty-nine (38 percent) were bicameral. While federations—in which subunits (states or provinces) have a constitutional status—usually have bicameral legislatures, almost one-third of unitary countries—in which subunits (prefectures) exist for changing administrative purposes—are also bicameral. In federal systems, second chambers usually represent the component states within the federation, while the first or main chamber represents districts on the basis of population size. The European Union (EU), with the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, created a multinational form of bicameralism though the codecision procedure in policy making between the directly elected European Parliament and the appointive Council of Ministers.

Membership And Selection

The second chamber tends to be smaller than the main chamber, though the British House of Lords is an exception. Most second chambers are in the eleven to one hundred-member range, while the main chambers may have fifty to two hundred members. Second chambers based upon governmental subunits, such as states, are more fixed in their size than those based on other and more flexible criteria.

Second chambers tend to have restricted qualifications for membership, a residue of the medieval European aristocratic origins of parliaments, and thus are often considered upper chambers. The most common current member restriction is age. The British House of Lords, by contrast, until the end of the twentieth century, retained its aristocratic membership through inheritance. Alternatives to this include the government appointment of all members to the Canadian Senate, and the king’s appointment for the Jordanian second chamber.

Other distinctive member selection means for second chambers include indirect election by states or provinces (Argentina), by localities (France and Croatia), functional representation (Slovenia and Ireland), and direct membership from state-level governments (Germany) or from state legislatures (Pakistan).

Direct popular election to the second chamber, now the most common means of selection, occurs in many different variations. In most bicameral systems, both districts and election systems for the two chambers differ from each other. In some, illustrated by Poland and Romania, elections to the two chambers occur on the same day for the same length of term. In others, illustrated by the United States and the Czech Republic, one-third of the members are elected every two years, with each member holding office for a six-year term.

The combination of different selection means, different terms of office, different districts, and different election systems tends to produce different party majorities and different policy views in the two chambers. A related result is that membership in second chambers is often more stable across election periods than in the main chamber.

Authority And Bargaining Relationships

Bicameral systems vary both in the symmetry of authority in the two chambers and in the congruence of their selection systems. In strong bicameral systems, the chambers are symmetrical in power but incongruent in selection means. In weak systems, the chambers are asymmetrical in power, regardless of the congruency of selection.

In federal systems, second chambers are more active and important than in unitary systems, in that the powers of the two chambers tend to be symmetric. The U.S. Senate, however, has exclusive appointment confirmation and treaty ratification functions, while the more restricted German Bundesrat shares jurisdiction with the Bundestag on policies administered by the Laender.

In unitary nations, second chambers have largely become supplemental in function to the main chamber. Their legislative function is limited to propose amendments to, and to delay, bills from the main chamber, often within time constraints. Though usually asymmetric in authority, the main purpose of second chambers in unitary nations is to limit the power of political parties obtained through direct popular elections to the main chamber. A more basic function of second chambers in both unitary and federal systems is to limit the power of government cabinets and chief executives, whether as prime ministers or as presidents. Powerful chief executives, presidents or prime ministers, may form a triangular relationship with the legislature by seeking support from one chamber to counter opposition from the other.

The more important the second chamber, the greater the need to reconcile differences between the two chambers. One common method, the navette (France), requires different versions of legislation to shuttle between the two chambers until both accept a common version. A second frequently used method is a joint committee (United States and Germany) between the two chambers, which adopts a common version to be accepted by both chambers. In a third method, employed in asymmetrical legislatures (Britain, Poland, and the Czech Republic), the main chamber can accept amendments from the supplemental chamber or readopt its original version of a bill.

Constitution revision and adoption of constitutional laws (e.g., the election system), by contrast, often require both chambers’ approval. In addition, in some systems (e.g., the Czech Republic), the supplemental second chamber cannot be dissolved by either the cabinet or the president. These system-protection provisions make second chambers more important in occasional crises than in the more frequent consideration of ordinary law.

Intercameral Structures

Bicameral systems function through distinctive organizational forms. The two chambers can meet together and vote as single bodies, illustrated by the Polish National Assembly in writing a constitution. Norway is distinctive in that the second chamber is a subset of members from the directly elected main chamber. Some have joint bicameral committees, as illustrated by the Joint Standing Committee on Defense of the South African bicameral parliament, or bicameral parliamentary party groups, as in Poland.

Second chambers have become the innovative, almost experimental, part of modern legislatures, especially in new political systems. The wide variety of specific activities goes far beyond the legislative activities of main chambers. The wide variety of selection procedures likewise greatly diversifies the representational reach and policy views of parliaments. Paradoxically, the more marginal the second chamber, the greater the potential for innovations in both composition and activities of the supplemental chamber.


  1. Patterson, Samuel C., and Anthony Mughan, eds. Senates: Bicameralism in the Contemporary World. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999.
  2. Tsebelis, George, and Jeanette Money. Bicameralism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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