In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0003


Bicameralism refers to legislative systems that include two chambers. In presidential systems, both chambers are typically directly elected. In parliamentary systems, the first (or lower) chamber is directly elected while the second (or upper) chamber can be appointed, elected directly, or elected indirectly. Historically, bicameral legislatures intended to represent the interest of the aristocracy in the second chamber and the interests of landowners in the first chamber, ensuring that aristocratic interests were dominant 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 unelected second chambers 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) utilizing the second chamber as a venue to represent the subunits within federal states (e.g., states, provinces, etc.), or (3) granting the second chamber a role in policy refinement (i.e., improving legislation), while at the same time replacing the power to defeat legislation outright with the power to delay legislation (suspensory veto authority). Although most second chambers play a role in refining legislation, the legislative studies literature has historically focused on second chambers within federal systems (which typically possess strong veto authority) and have ignored the policy influence of second chambers that lack strong veto authority. This “conventional wisdom” is being challenged, as governments have become increasingly reliant on second chambers as venues to introduce and debate legislation and have had to become more adept at negotiating with second chambers, as the latter have become increasingly more willing to defeat government legislation in many legislative systems. 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.

General Overviews

Bicameralism is relatively understudied in the comparative legislatures literature, given the literature’s focus on chambers that are (1) elected directly and (2) possess strong veto authority. Nice overviews of bicameralism can be found in Bradbury and Crain 2004, Uhr 2008, and Heller and Branduse 2014 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.

    DOI: 10.1007/b108558

    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).

  • Heller, William B., and Diana M. Branduse. “The Politics of Bicameralism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies. Edited by Shane Martin, Thomas Saalfield, and Kaare Strom, 332–351. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199653010.001.0001

    Reviews the literature relating to bicameralism, including the evolution of second chambers, as well as current debates relating to the policy influence of second chambers.

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

    DOI: 10.1080/1357233042000322436

    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.

    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/54.3.442

    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/CBO9780511609350

    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/9780199548460.001.0001

    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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