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View Full Version : Which is better: A one-house legislature, or a two-house legislature?


BrainGlutton
05-04-2004, 08:41 PM
I recently revived an old thread: "Should the United States Senate be abolished?" -- http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?t=181890 -- in response to a a big cover story in this month's (May 2004) Harper's Magazine: "What Democracy? The case for abolishing the United States Senate," by Richard N. Rosenfeld. But this got me to thinking about a distinct if related problem.

Many political thinkers object to the existence of the U.S. Senate because of its malapportionment, that is, the way it overrepresents the people of the smaller states. Only occasionally do they object on the grounds that it is a second house of the legislature, and a second house is fundamentally unnecessary. Except for Nebraska, every state in the Union uses a two-house legislature. It used to be the case, in some states, that the upper house, the "senate," was elected by counties, regardless of their population, as the U.S. Senate is elected by states regardless of their population. But that came to an end after Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), the Supreme Court case which held the federal courts have jurisdiction to redress "malapportionment" in state legislatures. Nowadays, we still have state senates, and state senators are elected from equal-sized single-member districts, just like the lower house, usually designated the state "house of representatives" or "house of delegates". The difference is that he state senate is usually a smaller body than the house, and the senators are elected from larger districts. So what's the point? If the two-house system is not meant to embody any "Great Compromise", then what's the point of having it at all? What is the value of a two-house system compared to a one-house system?

In recent years, only one state has seriously considered moving from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature: Minnesota. For a time, it was a pet issue of the Independence Party there, and holding a referendum on the issue is still part of the party's platform (http://mnip.org/platform3.htm). You can read some about the debate at http://house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/uni_bicam.htm.

Here, off the top of my head, are the main arguments on each side:

Pro-bicameral:

1. A two-house legislature obstructs hasty government action. No legislation can be enacted unless two different bodies agree it is a good thing. Often the final version is worked out by a two-house "conference committee," which means all aspects of it get looked at pretty thoroughly.

2. If the state senate districts are larger than the house districts, that means that the individual senators, representing larger constituencies, will look at regional problems on a larger scale than their counterparts in the house.

3. The bicameral system is "time-honored," that is, we've been doing things this way for more than 200 years and there's no obviously compelling need to change the system.

Pro-unicameral:

1. A one-house legislature is more efficient in making policy. It is also less expensive, since the state only has to pay for one set of legislators, legislative staffs, offices, etc. Rapid-response government, which can quickly adapt public policy to changed circumstances, is a good thing.

2. If the two-house system makes it more difficult to enact legislation, it also makes it more difficult to repeal legislation; a one-house legislature can act more expeditiously to recognize and correct its mistakes.

3. A one-house legislature is less expensive, since the state only has to pay for one set of legislators, legislative staffs, offices, etc.

4. As conceived in the 18th Century, the "upper house" of any legislature was intended to embody the "aristocratic" as opposed to the "republican" principle -- that is, it was intended to be composed of men of superior wealth, education, and reputation. (See Rosenfeld's article in Harper's.) Nobody takes this way of thinking seriously any more (or at least, no one will defend it publicly), but, even in the absence of property qualifications for voting or office-holding, the effect remains much the same: If the state senate has larger districts than the state house, then getting elected to it is almost certainly more expensive, therefore the senators are more likely to be rich or to be supported by and dependend on rich donors, than are their counterparts in the house. So who needs them?

5. In terms of political theory, what is the point of having two different legislative bodies which in principle both represent the very same sovereign electorate?

6. When the first state governments were set up in the late 18th Century, the two-house system was intended to, among other things, weaken the legislative branch as against the executive branch. This was for fear that the legislature would encroach on civil liberties. The thinking was, divide the legislature into two houses and you weaken it by making it slower and more difficult for it to arrive at any decisions. But time has shown that thinking was just exactly backwards. Nowadays, and for some decades past, and at both the state and federal levels, the most serious threats to civil liberties in America always seem to come from the executive branch, not the legislative. Therefore, it would make more sense to collapse each bicameral legislature into a single house, in order to strengthen the relative power of the legislative branch as against the executive.

Can you think of any more arguments, on either side?

David Simmons
05-04-2004, 11:33 PM
in order to strengthen the relative power of the legislative branch as against the executive.

Can you think of any more arguments, on either side?

The only argument I can think of is that the Congress doesn't really need a change in the structure of the government to be relatively more powerful than the Executive.

The President's real job under the Congress is to execute, i.e. carry out, the will of the Congress.

Congress, if its member had any guts at all, has all the power it needs. The President can veto legislation but the Congress can override if it chooses thus having the final word. The Congress can throw the President and all other executive department officers out on their respective ears for any reason that it deems proper. The Congress can refuse to fund an executive departments if it decides that is the best thing to do.

The reason that the Congress rarely does any of these things is that it is difficult to get a committee to form a large enough majority to act so decisively. But a one horse, oops! I mean house, legislature would also have that problem.

David Simmons
05-04-2004, 11:34 PM
[QUOTE=David Simmons]
The President's real job under the Congress is to execute, i.e. carry out, the will of the Congress.

Whoa!! make that '... under the Constitution ...'

JRDelirious
05-05-2004, 10:56 AM
David, I think BrainGlutton is referring mostly to legislatures in unitary states (States of the Union, and unitary nations). I glean from the OP that he can sort of see the point of the bicameral system in the case of a federation like the USA (population balancing). Still, many federative states elsewhere have all-proportional bicamerals (no balancing) and both federatives and unitaries often have parliamentary-system bicamerals that may operate as virtual unicamerals, as in practice the "upper" house becomes mostly a ceremonial accessory with power only in special cases, and the government is formed and run by the "lower" house.

In most cases in the US jurisdiction, the 2-house system is adopted because it's what's familiar and we know how to work it. Also, and this applies almost everywhere, it's often a way to appease political factions and leaders whom you may not be able to give proper positions of prestige and standing in a unicameral (A combination of both of those is behind why the 1952 Constitution gave PR a bicameral, BTW).

BrainGlutton
05-05-2004, 11:40 AM
In most cases in the US jurisdiction, the 2-house system is adopted because it's what's familiar and we know how to work it. Also, and this applies almost everywhere, it's often a way to appease political factions and leaders whom you may not be able to give proper positions of prestige and standing in a unicameral (A combination of both of those is behind why the 1952 Constitution gave PR a bicameral, BTW).

Interesting. I didn't know that. Do you mean one purpose of the PR bicameral system was to provide more jobs for more politicians? We could achieve the same end just by having a unicameral legislature and making it larger. Not necessarily a bad thing, either -- the larger it is, the more representative it is; that is, the smaller the districts, the fewer constituents each representative has and more of them he/she can actually get to know.

David Simmons
05-05-2004, 11:53 AM
David, I think BrainGlutton is referring mostly to legislatures in unitary states (States of the Union, and unitary nations).

Yeah, but my point was that changing to one house vs. two will not achieve the stated end of strengthening the legislative relative to the executive. I don't know about all of the states, but I suspect that their government structures also pretty much give the legislature the upper hand if they choose to use it.

BrainGlutton
05-05-2004, 11:59 AM
I don't know about all of the states, but I suspect that their government structures also pretty much give the legislature the upper hand if they choose to use it.

Only in the sense that governors cannot enact legislation on their own authority. On the other hand, no American state has a parliamentary system where the legislative branch chooses the executive. In every state, the governor is elected separately from the legislature and therefore has an independent political mandate; and the legislature does not have the power to remove him except, perhaps, through impeachment proceedings. Furthermore, the governor is always there while the legislature does things only while it is in session. In my state, Florida, the legislature meets only two months out of the year. In Texas, I believe, it is even less. Collapsing bicameral legislatures into unicameral legislatures would not change any of these things, but it would throw some new weight onto the legislative side of the scale, by making the legislature leaner and meaner.

JRDelirious
05-05-2004, 08:45 PM
[semi-jack]
Interesting. I didn't know that. Do you mean one purpose of the PR bicameral system was to provide more jobs for more politicians?
Specifically, two of them. Samuel R. Quiñones was not going to be #2 to Ernesto Ramos-Antonini, nor vice-versa, over each other's dead body. And Governor Luis Muñoz Marín saw that hey, giving them both what they wanted would halp give him what HE wanted: a near-almighty Executive and a Legislature incapable of standing up to him.

Must provide background: at the time of the drafting of the Commonwealth Constitution, it was initially considered to go unicameral. BUT... the colonial houses had been previously organized by the American admistrators in a bicameral scheme (though they were subject to being vetoed by the colonial Gov, the President AND Congress itself, and even to having local statutes rewrit by Congress; and from 1900-17 the "upper" house was just the US-appointed colonial Cabinet!). During 1917-48 the "Senate" majority leader was the most powerful "native" in the colonial government, but when we got an elective governorship and the process to create the Commonwealth, LMM, the Big Boss to end all Big Bosses of 20th-century PR politics, took the Executive for himself, had it rewrit so where a lot of decisions were by committee of the Guv + cabinet now they were Guv alone, and used the two legislative speakerships as treats to make SRQ and ERA be good boys and heel.

Y'know what they say about lawmaking and sausage-making...

[/semi-jack]

longhair75
05-05-2004, 09:48 PM
good evening friends,

i live in nebraska, the one state with a unicameral legislature. the problem is that there is no check in the legislative process. one party dominates the single legislative body, and passes laws almost by fiat.

a two house legislature would be less efficient, and more expensive, but the laws that made it through both houses would have a better chance at being reasonably fair.

BrainGlutton
05-05-2004, 09:51 PM
good evening friends,

i live in nebraska, the one state with a unicameral legislature. the problem is that there is no check in the legislative process. one party dominates the single legislative body, and passes laws almost by fiat.

??? But in the states that have bicameral legislatures, isn't it usually the case that the same party dominates both houses? Since, after all, both are chosen by the same electorate, by slightly different means.

John Mace
05-05-2004, 10:23 PM
??? But in the states that have bicameral legislatures, isn't it usually the case that the same party dominates both houses? Since, after all, both are chosen by the same electorate, by slightly different means.

Same way you can have a Governor of one party and both US Senators of a different party. CA is a good example. Same electorate, different parties. People don't necessarily vote along strict party lines. And when you draw districtis in different ways, you get different results.

2sense
05-06-2004, 12:26 AM
You have missed a major criticism of bicameralism, BrainGlutton. Because a 2 house legislature is more complicated it is more opaque than a single house. Citizens only have so much time to devote to monitering governmental activities and the more complex the government the less effective the public oversight. Double the legislature and you more than double the opportunities for influencing policy outside the public eye. Hell, can you more than double it as there are not just legislative committees within each house but usually a compromise committee between them once different versions of a bill have passed both houses.

Another problem with bicameralism is that it allows legislators to be more irresponsible. Since there is another branch of the legislature there is someone else to blame. When facing reelection members of each house can blame the other for legislative failures. It also allows individual legislators to duck controvertial votes. If a representative knows that a popular proposal is going to fail in the other house they can go ahead and vote in favor even if they oppose it. They can deceive their constituents about their true position while getting the legislative result they prefer.
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i live in nebraska, the one state with a unicameral legislature. the problem is that there is no check in the legislative process. one party dominates the single legislative body, and passes laws almost by fiat

How is this a bad thing? They promise to do certain things to get elected and afterwards they have the power to actually accomplish those goals. If the people don't like the results they can vote the bums out and get some new legislators who also have the ability to enact their campaign promises. I would much rather have that system then one which forces ( rather than encourages ) compromise with the other party(s). Then the voters never get to see the results of the policies they voted for. When no party has the power to act alone everyone can pass the buck.
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To sum up the main reason I favor unicameralism is because I want the representatives of the people to be responsible to the people.

zev_steinhardt
05-06-2004, 12:48 AM
??? But in the states that have bicameral legislatures, isn't it usually the case that the same party dominates both houses? Since, after all, both are chosen by the same electorate, by slightly different means.

Not necessarily. New York has had a Democrat-run Assembly and Republican-run Senate for a looong time. But then again, New York (State) politics are so dysfunctional that I certainly hope no other state in the union is comperable. In the end, the only way legislation gets passed here in New York is through horse-trading between the governor and the Speakers of the two houses. This might help to explain why New York's budget is late for the twentieth year in a row.

But, back to the point, yes, you can have two different houses run by two different parties.

Zev Steinhardt

BrainGlutton
05-07-2004, 07:26 PM
You have missed a major criticism of bicameralism, BrainGlutton. Because a 2 house legislature is more complicated it is more opaque than a single house. Citizens only have so much time to devote to monitering governmental activities and the more complex the government the less effective the public oversight. Double the legislature and you more than double the opportunities for influencing policy outside the public eye. Hell, can you more than double it as there are not just legislative committees within each house but usually a compromise committee between them once different versions of a bill have passed both houses.

Another problem with bicameralism is that it allows legislators to be more irresponsible. Since there is another branch of the legislature there is someone else to blame. When facing reelection members of each house can blame the other for legislative failures. It also allows individual legislators to duck controvertial votes. If a representative knows that a popular proposal is going to fail in the other house they can go ahead and vote in favor even if they oppose it. They can deceive their constituents about their true position while getting the legislative result they prefer.

Not to hijack my own thread, but it occurs to me that this same "transparency" argument could be -- and has been -- used to call for a parliamentary system as opposed to a separation-of-powers system. Separation of powers makes it possible for the legislature to blame the executive, and vice-versa, for anything that doesn't get done.

I did start a thread, some time ago: "Presidential vs. parliamentary system: Which is better?" -- http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?t=191717

Captain Amazing
05-07-2004, 07:44 PM
You have missed a major criticism of bicameralism, BrainGlutton. Because a 2 house legislature is more complicated it is more opaque than a single house.

Wasn't it Otto von Bismarck who said something like, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see how they're made"? :)

EvilGhandi
05-08-2004, 12:23 AM
In the case like of States like mine, I think you would be glad to keep us. If the United States decided to pass a law that nulified Hawaii's say in national politics, what (aside from military force) would oblige us to remain in the union?

2sense
05-08-2004, 12:24 AM
Not to hijack my own thread, but it occurs to me that this same "transparency" argument could be -- and has been -- used to call for a parliamentary system as opposed to a separation-of-powers system. Separation of powers makes it possible for the legislature to blame the executive, and vice-versa, for anything that doesn't get done.

Indeed. You might want to take another look at Daniel Lazare. Michael Lind's critique doesn't do him justice. His first book The Frozen Republic (http://amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0151000859/qid=1083988406/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1__i1_xgl14/104-3269643-8764710?v=glance&s=books): How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy covers these problems with the horizontal division of powers. His 2nd book American's Undeclared War (http://amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0151005524/qid=1083988406/sr=1-3/ref=sr_1_3__i3_xgl14/104-3269643-8764710?v=glance&s=books):What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It goes on to examine the vertical division of federal, state, and the balkanization of local authority which leaves no political unit competent to address the problems which face our urbanized regions. ( You can skip his third book. )

Think about it. I enjoy thinking about politics and do so every day yet there just isn't enough time to fulfill my duty to moniter all my representatives. I can't keep an eye on the House of Representatives, federal senate, federal executive, state assembly, state senate, state executive, county council, county executive, and my township board of supervisors. And now with a child on the way I'll have to watch the school board as well. It doesn't surprise me that Americans don't properly supervise our governments. It's an impossible task for anyone that has other interests ( or a life :) ).
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2sense
05-08-2004, 12:30 AM
In the case like of States like mine, I think you would be glad to keep us. If the United States decided to pass a law that nulified Hawaii's say in national politics, what (aside from military force) would oblige us to remain in the union?

Did I miss something? Has anyone advocated nulifying anyone's say in national poltics?
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David Simmons
05-08-2004, 03:00 AM
Wasn't it Otto von Bismarck who said something like, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see how they're made"? :)

"If you like laws and sausages you should never watch either either one being made."

According to this site widely attributed to Otto von Bismark (http://bartleby.com/73/996.html) but unverified.

EvilGhandi
05-08-2004, 06:33 AM
2sense, if you eliminate Hawaii's Senators, you leave us ony our reps. Hawaii and many other states do not have a huge population and could be voted down by a population base the size of city of Los Angeles.

I for one do no want my law dictated to me by one city. I want equal representation as a State in the Union. If Hawaii does not have equal say in the matters of state as other partner states, whats the point?

2sense
05-08-2004, 04:27 PM
Ah, I see. When you expressed concern over the idea of eliminating Hawaii's representation I thought that's what you meant. Instead you are concerned with maintaining your advantage in representation over some other Americans. I would have been happy to argue against those trying to deny you equal representation but since it is you that are doing so...

Nor is anyone proposing to let one city dictate policy. The people of LA ( or any other metropolis ) make up only a small fraction of the total population. Thus equal representation would only give them a small fraction of the representatives.

The point is that Americans living there in Hawaii and Americans living here in Pittsburgh and even those Americans living in Los Angeles are Americans. We are not Serbs and Croats and Slovenes and the like that people pretend are all Yugoslavians. We are a people. Los Angelinos aren't going to try to do you wrong just because you are from Hawaii. You have nothing to fear but fear itself and nothing to lose but an unfair advantage over your fellow Americans.
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