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Why Do We Have a Bicameral Legislature?

April 1, 2013

A recent editorial suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that it’s a good thing that Michigan has a bicameral (two-house) legislature. While the subject of the editorial was an attempt to, in the author’s opinion, infringe on the constitutional independence that Michigan’s public universities enjoy, the focus of this discussion will be on the existence of Michigan’s bicameral legislature, which the editorialist credits with stopping a bad idea from becoming law.

Michigan, like 48 of her 49 sister states, (Nebraska is the exception) mirrors the Federal arrangement wherein the legislative branch is divided into two houses.  The lower of these, in both systems, is supposed to be closer to the people, with representatives elected biennially from smaller districts.  The upper house, usually styled the ‘senate,’ is supposed to be more deliberative, often operating under different rules (such as the filibuster) that give each Senator more power and freedom of action.  (One Senator can block a nomination requiring Senate approval or hold up legislation via a filibuster, for example, in the Unites States Senate.)  State senators usually serve longer terms and represent larger constituencies as well.

As state legislatures mirror their Federal counterpart, they both take their form from the English model (House of Commons/House of Lords) and from the Roman Republic, where the Senate (‘Senex’ = ‘old man’ in Latin) was composed of the ‘conscript Fathers,’ or the leading men of the state, while the various popular assemblies, such as the Centuriate, represented the people, or were composed of the body politic itself, in a display of direct democracy.

The intent of all three systems is to create a process that allows for deliberation at two levels; the lower, or Popular one should be most in touch with the wants, needs, and desires of the people, while the other should be insulated enough from popular passion to be able to take a breath, debate and discuss legislation more deliberately, and give opponents of any given measure a second chance to make their case.  In effect, the two-house system allows for an additional opportunity to kill a bad idea, as is the case with attempting to infringe on the constitutional independence of public universities.

In the English and Roman systems (as well as the old French three-house legislature of the ancien regime and others) is to represent different classes of society – lords (spiritual and temporal) and  commons, under the assumption that each class had distinct interests that could best be served by their having a legislative house open to their own, representing their own, and controlled by their own.  America’s Founders initially set up the Federal legislative branch in much the same way, with Senators representing their state’s interests, while members of the House would answer directly to the people.  Until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, it could be said that each house did indeed represent a different set of interests, as Senators answered for their votes not to the people, but to state legislatures, who had power to elect them to office.  Now, it would be safer to say that both houses answer to the same electorate, though in different configurations.  This arrangement is not without controversy, even in our time, as there are some who continue to argue that the old system was a sounder foundation for effective, balanced and limited government.  This same evolution has occurred within state legislatures, as the principle of ‘one man [person], one vote‘ has, since Baker v. Carr, reshaped state legislative districts to be equal and proportional to the voting population they contain.

Despite the changes in how legislative representation is apportioned and whom they represent, the additional deliberative layer added by having legislation pass through two houses before it may be sent to the Executive to (possibly – if not vetoed) become law, remains, and it provides a valuable bulwark against a too-quick adoption, in the heat of the moment, of a good-sounding bad idea.  Once made law, bad ideas are harder to undo than beforehand; we should be happy that we continue to have a system that, when it moves slowly, does so to protect our lives, liberties, our pursuit of happiness from abuses that come from rushing to ‘do something’ in response to the crisis of the day.  We should act to keep it so for those who come after us.

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