Bicameralism and its Discontents

Parliamentary second chambers are a common, yet peculiar feature of constitutions worldwide. Their diversity of design and the assorted roles they play in majoritarian democracies are reason enough for a comparative analysis, but there is more: Bicameralism – and its discontents – is in the air. Countries within and outside of Europe have recently made attempts to reform or abolish their respective upper houses.

The lower house is the majoritarian chamber. That is not to say that we can simply deduce the electoral law from the principle of majoritarian rule and that there cannot be very significant differences in the composition of the first chamber. You may of course argue whether a first-past-the-post or a proportional representation system is preferable for neither one follows strictly from the principle of democracy. This may be an obvious example, but the bottom line is clear: There are countless ways to organize a democratic process. Nevertheless, we know the principle the design of a lower house must be measured against. And we can ascertain the manner in which a first chamber ought not to be designed.

This is not the case when it comes to the evaluation of the upper house. The term bicameralism describes very dissimilar institutional arrangements. Some upper houses are conceived as the representation of federal sub-units, some as a chamber of sober second thought, others serve both purposes. In most cases – to further complicate things: the Italian senate may be an exception here – the existence of an upper house counteracts the majoritarian rule as carried out by the lower chamber through its composition and procedure. The very idea of sober second thought runs counter to the politicizing effects clear channels of political accountability might have ...

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