In This Article Bicameralism in Stable Democracies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Modeling Legislative Outcomes
  • Bicameralism and Policy Stability
  • Party Discipline in Second Chambers
  • Second Chamber Abolition
  • Second Chamber Reform
  • Effects on Systemic Institutional Attributes
  • Effects on Policy

Political Science Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
David Fisk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • 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. Although outside the United States, most second chambers are responsible for refining legislation, bicameralism was intended historically to provide representation for the aristocracy in the second chamber and representation for the masses in the first chamber. During this stage, second chambers were dominant within the policymaking process, as they possessed 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 became untenable. To address this anomaly, governments responded by (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). After the veto authority of most second chambers was curbed, it was widely believed that the role of the second chamber in the policymaking process was limited and the second chamber was better suited for providing a soft landing for politicians on their way to retirement rather than for substantive policy debate. In recent years, however, as governments have become increasingly reliant on the second chamber as a venue to introduce and debate legislation within a less partisan atmosphere and as second chambers have become increasingly more willing to defeat government legislation, debate over whether or not this blanket rejection of the influence of second chambers is justified has sparked a resurgence of interest in these bodies. This debate has also found its way into the 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 who are underrepresented in the second chamber, with the exception of Ireland, abolition is not currently being seriously considered by governing parties in most stable democratic systems.

General Overviews

Given a focus on chambers that are (1) elected directly and (2) possess strong veto authority, most resources (including textbooks) focus primarily on the role and function of governments in the first chamber rather than the second chamber. Overviews of bicameralism can be found in Bradbury and Crain 2004 and Uhr 2008, 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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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).

  • Norton, Phillip. “How Many Bicameral Legislatures Are There?” Journal of Legislative Studies 10.4 (2004): 1–9.

    DOI: 10.1080/1357233042000322436E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

    DOI: 10.1093/parlij/54.3.442E-mail Citation »

    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.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609350E-mail Citation »

    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.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199548460.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    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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