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This article refers to the term's use with respect to government. For the psychological theory, see Bicameralism (psychology).

In government, bicameralism is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers. Thus, a bicameral parliament or bicameral legislature is a parliament or legislature which consists of two Chambers or Houses. Bicameralism is an essential and defining feature of the classical notion of mixed government.



Although the ideas on which bicameralism is based can be traced back to the theories developed in ancient Greece and Rome, recognizable bicameral institutions first arose in medieval Europe where they were associated with separate representation of different estates of the realm.

The Founding Fathers of the United States eschewed any notion of separate representation for a social aristocracy, but they accepted the prevailing disposition towards bicameralism. However, as part of the Great Compromise between large states and small states, they invented a new rationale for bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally and the lower house would have them represented by population.

In subsequent constitution making, federal states have often adopted bicameralism, and the solution remains popular when regional differences or sensitivities require more explicit representation, with the second chamber representing the constitutent states. Nevertheless, the older justification for second chambers – providing opportunities for second thoughts about legislation – has survived. A trend towards unicameralism in the 20th century appears now to have been halted.

Growing awareness of the complexity of the notion of representation and the multifunctional nature of modern legislatures may be affording incipient new rationales for second chambers, though these do generally remain contested institutions in ways that first chambers are not. An example of political controversy regarding a second chamber has been the debate over the powers of the Canadian Senate.

The relationship between the two chambers varies; in some cases, they have equal power, while in others, one chamber is clearly superior in its powers. The first tends to be the case in federal systems and those with presidential governments. The latter tends to be the case in unitary states with parliamentary systems.

Some political scientists believe that bicameralism makes meaningful political reforms more difficult to achieve and increases the risk of deadlock (particularly in cases where both chambers have similar powers). Others argue strongly for the merits of the 'checks and balances' provided by the bicameral model, which they believe helps prevent the passage into law of ill-considered legislation.

The different sorts of bicameralism


Some countries, such as Australia, the United States, India, Brazil, Switzerland, and Germany, link their bicameral systems to their federal political structure.

In the United States, Australia and Brazil, for example, each state is given the same number of seats in the legislature's upper house. This takes no account of population differences between states — it is designed to ensure that smaller states are not overshadowed by more populous ones. (In the United States, the deal that ensured this arrangement is known as the Connecticut Compromise.) In the lower houses of each country, these provisions do not apply, and seats are won based purely on population. The bicameral system, therefore, is a method of combining the principle of democratic equality with the principle of federalism — all votes are equal in the lower houses, while all states are equal in the upper houses.

In the Indian and German systems, the upper houses (the Rajya Sabha and the Bundesrat, respectively) are even more closely linked with the federal system, being appointed or elected directly by the governments of each Indian State or German Bundesland. (This was also the case in the United States before the 17th Amendment.)

Aristocratic bicameralism

In a few countries, bicameralism involves the juxtaposition of democratic and aristocratic elements.

The best known example is the British House of Lords, which includes a number of hereditary peers. The House of Lords represents a vestige of the aristocratic system which once predominated in British politics, while the other house, the House of Commons, is entirely elected. Over the years, there have been proposals to reform the House of Lords, some of which have been at least partly successful — the number of hereditary peers (as opposed to life peers, appointed by the government) has been reduced to 92 out of around 700, and the ability of the House of Lords to block legislation has been reduced.

Another example of aristocratic bicameralism was the Japanese House of Peers, abolished after World War II.

Unitary states

Many bicameral systems are not connected with either federalism or an aristocracy, however. Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Republic of Ireland and Romania are examples of bicameral systems existing in unitary states. In countries such as these, the upper house generally exists solely for the purpose of scrutinising and possibly vetoing the decisions of the lower house.

In some of these countries, the upper house is indirectly elected. Members of France's Senate, Ireland's Seanad Éireann are chosen by electoral colleges consisting of members of the lower house and local councillors, while the Netherlands' First Chamber is chosen by members of provincial assemblies.

Subnational entities

In some countries with federal systems, individual states (like those of the United States and Australia) may also have bicameral legislatures. Only two states, Nebraska in the US and Queensland in Australia have adopted unicameral systems.

However, in early United States history, unicameral state legislatures were commonplace. It was not until 1836, for example, that Vermont finally created a Senate.

During the 1930s, the Legislature of the State of Nebraska was reduced from bicameral to unicameral with the 43 members that once comprised that state's Senate. One of the arguments used to sell the idea at the time to Nebraska voters was that by adopting a unicameral system, the perceived evils of the "conference committee" process would be eliminated.

A conference committee is appointed when the two chambers cannot agree on the same wording of a proposal, and consists of a small number of legislators from each chamber. This tends to place much power in the hands of only a small number of legislators. Whatever legislation, if any, the conference committee finalizes must then be approved in an unamendable "take-it-or-leave-it" manner by both chambers.

During his term as Governor of the State of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura proposed converting the Minnesotan legislature to a single chamber with proportional representation, as a reform that he felt would solve many of legislative difficulties and impinge upon legislative corruption. In his book on political issues, Do I Stand Alone?, Ventura argued that bicameral legislatures for provincial and local areas were excessive and unnecessary, and discussed unicameralism as a reform that could address many legislative and budgetary problems for states.

In Australian states the lower house was traditionally elected based on the one-vote-one-value principle, whereas the upper house was partially appointed and elected, with a bias towards country voters. In Queensland, the appointed upper house was abolished in 1922, while New South Wales there were similar attempts at abolition, before the upper house was reformed in the 1970s to provide for direct election. Nowadays, the upper house is elected using proportional voting and the lower house through preferential voting, except in Tasmania, where proportional voting is used for the lower house, and preferential voting for the upper house.

Bicameralism and Arab political reform

A 2005 report on democratic reform in the Arab world by the US Council for Foreign Relations co-sponsored by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Arab states to adopt bicameralism, with upper chambers appointed on a 'specialised basis'. The Council argued that this would protect against the 'tyranny of the majority', expressing concerns that without a system of checks and balances Islamist extremists would use the single chamber parliaments to restrict the rights of minority groups.

In 2002, Bahrain adopted a bicameral system with an elected lower chamber and an appointed upper house. This led to a boycott of parliamentary elections that year by one radical Islamist party, who said that the government would use the upper house to veto their plans. Many secular critics of bicameralism were won round to its benefits in 2005, after Islamist MPs in the lower house voted for the introduction of so-called 'morality police'.


Blue: Nations with bicameral legislatures.Orange: Nations with unicameral legislatures.Grey: No legislature.
Blue: Nations with bicameral legislatures.
Orange: Nations with unicameral legislatures.
Grey: No legislature.

See also

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