In 2007, roughly 40 percent of the world’s national-legislature governments had two chambers, otherwise known as a bicameral assembly. The other 60 percent consist of only one chamber, a unicameral assembly. In these bicameral representative institutions, there is a lower chamber, considered the first chamber, and an upper chamber, considered the second chamber. For example, in the United States, the lower chamber is the House of Representatives and the upper chamber is the Senate; in the United Kingdom, the lower is the House of Commons and the upper is the House of Lords; in India, there is the House of the People and the Council of States; and Japan has the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.
Bicameralism is quite common in countries with larger populations and that have had longer, more established histories of Western-style democratic institutions (e.g., the United States, Canada, India, and Germany), whereas unilateralism more frequently occurs in newer nations with small populations, that have less established experiences of democratic governance (e.g., New Zealand, Denmark, Hungary, Nigeria, and Iran). Interestingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of the incipient democracies of Eastern and East Central Europe opted for upper chambers in their legislatures (e.g., the Czech Republic, Poland, and Croatia).
In bicameral legislatures, members of the upper chamber usually serve longer terms than those in the lower chamber. To ensure that the upper chamber is not simply a mirror reflection of the lower chamber, methods of member selection between the two chambers commonly differ. Members of the lower chamber take their seats via direct election by the people, and members of the upper chamber are selected by one or more of the following four procedures: direct election, indirect election by regional governments, appointment by the government, and heredity.
The logic behind having an upper chamber, in addition to the first chamber, traces to a state’s fundamental decision; differing perspectives on democracy and the best way to achieve democratic goals usually drive this decision. At the heart of this are the two primary democratic considerations of majoritarianism versus protection of minority rights with the accompanying checks and balances. Questions surround whether a democratic system should be predicated on the strong advancement of majority will, or whether there should be empowered protections of the rights and wants of those not in the majority to help ensure tyranny—and unwise decision making—does not occur. Thus, unicameralism advances the majoritarian view of democracy: a second chamber should not hinder a legislative assembly directly elected by the people. With just one chamber, there is no potential hampering or stymieing of the people’s will as it is manifested in their representatives’ collective decisions.
Proponents of bicameral assembly structures disagree with this rationale. They contend that having an upper chamber provides an important democratic safeguard, as it serves as an effective check and balance inside the legislature. An abiding fear of a latently repressive majority in the lower “people’s house” trampling on the minority’s rights drives these arguments. The argument is also made that the upper chamber serves as a moderating force with thoughtful deliberation at a premium, and a longer-term, broader, and calmer view on the nation’s welfare is given a place in the legislature, away from the more immediate and directly felt popular passions evinced in the lower chamber.
Having an upper chamber in a federal system ensures influence for constituent provincial units of the nation in the legislative process. This consideration was observed in the decision of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution to have the Senate be composed of two senators from each state, no matter the size of the state’s population. This worked to assuage the concerns of the small-population states that feared their interests in the lower chamber—where representation is based directly on population—would be inherently overwhelmed by the interests of the large-population states.
There are two general models of bicameralism in the world today: strong and weak. In the strong model, the upper chamber has equal strength and authority with the lower chamber in the legislative process. A prime example of this is how the U.S. Senate plays an important and active part in the formation, development, and passage or thwarting of legislation. In weak bicameralism, the lower chamber clearly dominates lawmaking and the upper chamber plays a subordinate role with a constrained ability to set, shape, or affect the national legislative agenda. The House of Lords in the United Kingdom is a leading example of this form. Weak bicameralism is more frequently seen in the world than is strong bicameralism.
- Baldwin, Nicholas D. J., and Donald Shell, eds. Second Chambers. London: Routledge, 2001.
- Derbyhire, J. Denis, and Ian Derbyshire. Political Systems of the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.
- Hague, Rod, and Martin Harrop. Political Science: A Comparative Introduction. 5th ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Patterson, Samuel C. Senates: Bicameralism in the Contemporary World. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999.
- Tsebelis, George, and Jeanette Money. Bicameralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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