When a country is supported by a bicameral legislature, it means the government consists of two separate chambers or houses within a specific body of legislative oversight. About 50% of the world’s governments, including the United States, are supported by this structure. The U.S. Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate, which meets the definition of this government body.
The word “bicameral” comes from the Latin word for “camera.” The English language uses that translated word as “chamber.”
This government type intends to offer representation at the local level from a centralized representative platform. It also represents all political subdivisions and local legislative bodies with the laws, rules, and regulations it passes.
The big pros and cons of bicameral legislature structures are designed to meet the needs of everyone while providing defensive and social services.
List of the Pros of Bicameral Legislature
1. It provides a system of checks and balances for the government.
Because two chambers of the same body must approve legislation before allowing it to proceed, there are fewer opportunities to pass laws that benefit special interests or specific groups. The exact wording of the legislation must pass both bodies. That means political parties are forced to negotiate with each other, developing an outcome that isn’t perfect, but is beneficial, to most (if not all) parties.
2. It offers representation at the individual level.
The bicameral legislature design offers multiple layers of representation within government for individuals. In the United States, the House of Representatives offers it through small districts, allowing communities, small-town groups, or urban neighborhoods to choose an elected official to represent them based on their population size. The Senate then offers two elected officials per state for representation.
That’s why some states only have one representative, while some neighborhoods in cities like Los Angeles receive more than one. Each population group gets to pick who they think best represents them.
3. It creates a better system of legislation.
When one group of people sets laws for everyone, the minority rules the majority. The only path to change then left for the electorate is to choose different people to be in the government. By creating two different bodies within the same branch, officials are forced to negotiate for a better bill. Even when one political party has complete control, like during the 2017-2018 election cycle for Republicans in the U.S., factions within the party still make it necessary to negotiate.
4. It limits the abuse of power.
The primary benefit of the bicameral legislature is the limits put in place to prevent abusive power. No one group is allowed to freely run through the government to produce policies which only benefit a few. It even stops the minority from being excluded by the majority under this representation format. The checks and balances work in combination with the other branches of government to ensure better results are achieved with greater consistency.
5. It creates a national identity.
The reason why about half of all world governments use a bicameral legislature structure is that it increases their space for a representative republic or democracy. It allows diverse communities to have a positive impact on the laws being passed while offering solutions to stop harmful ideas from gaining traction. That means every community receives representation in a way that is similar, providing the foundation for a collective national identity to be practiced by everyone.
6. It allows the people with expertise to take the lead.
When there are two segments within the same body, there are more human capital resources available to the government. Although more officials equate to higher expenditures, there is the benefit of flexibility provided to the country. The people who hold the most expertise are brought onto bills which benefit from their perspective. Instead of forcing someone to work on infrastructure when their experience is in the medical field, the parties and the bicameral legislature can use the most talented people in each situation.
7. It encourages incumbents to continue running for elected positions.
Politics is the only profession on Earth where a lack of experience is viewed as a good thing. If you needed heart surgery, you’d go with the physician who had 40 years of experience over the one who has 4 years’ experience. You’d hire the golf pro with 20 tour wins over the one with none. With politics, those who know the bicameral system are more likely to engineer beneficial compromises. The structure encourages politicians to continue running to represent their districts, even if their time of service is viewed as a disadvantage by some.
List of the Cons of Bicameral Legislature
1. It increases the risk of political deadlock.
When a bicameral legislature design is used for a national government, the structure requires both groups within the governing body to approve new laws or rules. One body cannot pass legislation that becomes law. Because both chambers must approve the same wording, it takes more time to develop compromises that each side finds acceptable. If one group won’t budge, then the legislation is blocked until compromises are found, or they abandon the idea altogether.
2. It encourages officials to stop legislation.
Within a bicameral legislature, one elected official has the power to stall bills when they feel like they’re unnecessary. Although the amount of stalling is minimal, often limited to the time they can spend on the floor, it does create a roadblock that may force change. Those filibuster attempts often go against what is best for the country, such as the 24+ hour effort waged by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
In one instance, Senator Alfonse D’Amato held a 15+ hour filibuster to hold up a $27 billion tax bill in 1992 that died when the House of Representatives adjourned for the year.
3. It encourages a waste of resources.
The structure of a bicameral legislature encourages two segments of the same body to do similar activities at the same time. That means time and monetary resources are wasted when these two groups try to hash out a compromise. It is feasible to believe that the government may not pass any legislation if the two bodies are far enough apart on issues, which means everyone elected got a paycheck for not doing much. Since these funds come from taxpayers, there is an understandable dissatisfaction with the way this government system operates.
Congressional approval numbers in the United States reflect this dissatisfaction. In 2002, in the time after the 9/11 attacks, the job approval rating for Congress peaked at 84%. According to Gallup, it reached a record low of 9% in November 2013.
4. It is a system which is easy to manipulate.
Over the past 20 years in the United States, concerted efforts at the state level to redraw Congressional districts worked to alter representation patterns. A 2017 report by CNN lists extreme examples of gerrymandering, which focuses on the boundaries of the district on population groups likely to vote a specific way. The Supreme Court will take up the case in Wisconsin when less than half of the vote in 2012 allowed Republicans to achieve a super-majority in the legislature.
5. It allows for special exceptions which eliminate the say of the voters.
If something happens to an elected official while they are serving, some states allow an elected official (often the Governor of the state) to appoint someone to the vacant seat instead of having a special election. That means someone not elected by a 50% majority could appoint someone to the bicameral legislature who doesn’t represent the needs of their district, state, or region while in the government – and the people being represented wouldn’t have a say in the matter until the next election.
6. It rarely represents a system that is truly reflective of the population.
When the 115th Congress took office in 2017, about 20% of the voting members in the Senate and the House were a racial or ethnic minority. That made it the most diverse sitting government in U.S. history. Even then, the discrepancies of representation are noticeable. Even though minorities made up 19% of Congress, they are 38% of the overall population of the United States. Additional gains by women, minorities, and ethnic groups in the 116th Congress will likely exceed these figures in 2019 when new members are sworn in, but it will still be below the national figures.
These pros and cons of a bicameral legislature do create frustrations because the system design is messy, inefficient, and slow. That creates benefits at the local level, however, because new laws are rarely impulsive. The system requires large groups of people to work together, which helps to form a national identity and improve the overall outcomes.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.