Bicameralism in Stable Democracies

David Fisk

in Political Science

ISBN: 9780199756223
Published online November 2011 | | DOI:
Bicameralism in Stable Democracies

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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.

Article.  8429 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Comparative Politics ; Political Institutions ; Political Methodology ; Political Theory

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