Bicameral Legislatures: Why the US Has One

Joint Session of Congress
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The term “bicameral legislature” refers to any lawmaking body of government that consists of two separate houses or chambers, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate that make up the United States Congress.

Indeed, the word “bicameral” comes from the Latin word “camera,” which translates to “chamber” in English.

Bicameral legislatures are intended to provide representation at the central or federal level of government for both the individual citizens of the country, as well as the legislative bodies of country’s states or other political subdivisions.

About half of the world’s governments have bicameral legislatures.

In the United States, the bicameral concept of shared representation is exemplified by the by the House of Representatives, whose 435 members represent the interests of all residents of the states they represent and the Senate, whose 100 members (two from each state) represent the interests of their state governments. A similar example of a bicameral legislature can be found in the English Parliament’s House of Commons and House of Lords.

There have always been two differing opinions on the effectiveness and purpose of bicameral legislatures:

Pro

Bicameral legislatures enforce an effective system of checks and balances preventing the enactment of laws unfairly impacting or favoring certain factions of the government or the people.

Con

The procedures of bicameral legislatures in which both chambers must approve legislation often result in complications slowing or blocking the passage of important laws.

Why Does the US Have a Bicameral Congress?

In the bicameral U.S. Congress, those complications and blocking of the legislative process can happen at any time, but are far more likely during periods when the House and Senate are controlled by different political parties.

So why do we have a bicameral Congress?

Since members of both chambers are elected by and represent the American people, wouldn't the lawmaking process be more efficient if bills were considered by only one “unicameral” body?

Just Like the Founding Fathers Saw It

While it is at times truly clumsy and overly time-consuming, the bicameral U.S. Congress works today exactly the way a majority of the framers of the Constitution envisioned in 1787. Clearly expressed in the Constitution is their belief that power should be shared among all units of government. Dividing Congress into two chambers, with the positive vote of both required to approve legislation, is a natural extension of the framers' concept of employing the concept of separation of powers to prevent tyranny.

The provision of a bicameral Congress did come without debate. Indeed, the question almost derailed the entire Constitutional Convention. Delegates from the small states demanded that all states be equally represented in Congress. The large state argued that since they had more voters, representation should be based on population. After months of great debate, deletes arrived at the “Great Compromise” under which the small states got equal representation (2 Senators from each state) and the large states got proportional representation based on population in the House.

But is the Great Compromise really all that fair? Consider that the largest state – California – with a population about 73 times larger than that of the smallest state – Wyoming – both get two seats in the Senate. Thus, it can be argued that an individual voter in Wyoming wields about 73 times more power in the Senate than an individual voter in California. Is that “one man – one vote?”

Why Are the House and Senate so Different?

Have you ever noticed that major bills are often debated and voted on by the House in a single day, while the Senate's deliberations on the same bill take weeks? Again, this reflects the Founding Fathers' intent that the House and Senate not be carbon-copies of each other. By designing differences into the House and Senate, the Founders assured that all legislation would be carefully considered, taking both the short and long-term effects into account.

Why Are the Differences Important?

The Founders intended that the House be seen as more closely representing the will of the people than the Senate.

To this end, they provided that members of the House - U.S. Representatives - be elected by and represent limited groups of citizens living in small geographically defined districts within each state. Senators, on the other hand, are elected by and represent all voters of their state. When the House considers a bill, individual members tend to base their votes primarily on how the bill might impact the people of their local district, while Senators tend to consider how the bill would impact the nation as a whole. This is just as the Founders intended.

Representatives Always Seem to be Running for Election

All members of the House are up for election every two years. In effect, they are always running for election. This ensures that members will maintain close personal contact with their local constituents, thus remaining constantly aware of their opinions and needs, and better able to act as their advocates in Washington. Elected for six-year terms, Senators remain somewhat more insulated from the people, thus less likely to be tempted to vote according to the short-term passions of public opinion.

Does Older Mean Wiser?

By setting the constitutionally-required minimum age for Senators at 30, as opposed to 25 for members of the House, the Founders hoped Senators would be more likely to consider the long-term effects of legislation and practice a more mature, thoughtful and deeply deliberative approach in their deliberations. Setting aside the validity of this "maturity" factor, the Senate undeniably does take longer to consider bills, often brings up points not considered by the House and just as often votes down bills passed easily by the House.

Cooling the Lawmaking Coffee

A famous (though perhaps fictional) quip often quoted to point out the differences between the House and Senate involves an argument between George Washington, who favored having two chambers of Congress and Thomas Jefferson, who believed a second legislative chamber unnecessary.

The story goes that the two Founders Fathers were arguing the issue while drinking coffee. Suddenly, Washington asked Jefferson, "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" "To cool it," replied Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."