Why Do We Have Bicameralism?

A key structural feature of Article One is bicameralism.  Why is Congress set up in this way?  There are many possible answers.  First, Congress was modeled on Parliament, which had two chambers–Lords and Commons.  Second, splitting Congress into two parts allowed the Framers to reach a compromise on the issue of representation (one house directly elected and one for states).  Third, dividing Congress was a way of creating an internal check on the legislative branch.

Let’s think about this last reason for a moment.  Why should Congress be internally divided while the Executive Branch and the Supreme Court are not?  Madison’s answer to this (in Federalist #51) was that Congress was the most powerful branch, so an internal check was essential.  Did this mean that as divided Congress was now coequal to the other branches?  Of course not.  A division just made it less likely that Congress would exercise its superior power.  The upshot being that bicameralism is further evidence that the three branches are not coequal.

As Orin pointed out in a comment to my prior post, though, it is far from clear what consequence should follow from the observation that the branches are not coequal.  I hope to elaborate on that in a post next week.  In the meantime, Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

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10 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    What role did slavery play with regard to the establishment of the Senate voted by states? This plus the 3/5th clause for House members might suggest what in 1787 made Congress “more equal” than the Executive and Judiciary: the protection of slavery.

  2. Mohamed says:

    Bicameralism also allowed the framers to reach a comprise on impeachment. There was a big disagreement regarding which body should act as the court of impeachment, until the Committee of Eleven granted the Senate the sole power to try all impeachments.

  3. Joe says:

    The presence of states made the Senate more logical but now each state has a bicameral legislature except for Nebraka.

    I find bicameralism somewhat questionable except to the extent that the upper house has different duties. The overlap for purposes of checking power and representation of states qua states to be at this point is somewhat questionable.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      I find bicameral legislatures a bit silly at the state level, where they’re forbidden, nominally for constitutional reasons, from replicating the exact same upper chamber represents districts, lower chamber represents population, system that the Constitution actually mandates at the federal level.

      • Joe says:

        Madison et, ak, supported the population based Senate approach fwiw showing bicameralism can include that. The Constitution mandates “districts” as in “states” for the Senate. The current district breakdown in the lower house is not mandated & an at large system is possible. But, the lower chamber still is broke down by states.

  4. Shag from Brookline says:

    The Senate “elected by states” was an ace in the hole for slavery and slaveowners paired up with the Article V limitations on Senate suffrage, part of the 1787 “southern strategy.”

    As Sandy Levinson has pointed out, the Senate by its nature is undemocratic even with direct voting. Query: Did the Framers, Ratifiers anticipate the power of a minority Montana population wise to be the same as that of CA?

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      For the modern ‘liberal’, sick and tired of being constrained by a constitution, everything in the constitution is about slavery.

      It’s the perfect way to discredit a constitution they want rid of.

      No, Shag, it’s not all about slavery. Try to remember that slavery wasn’t the big thing in the 1780’s, that it became later. Might even have died out if not for the invention of the cotton gin making cotton a very profitable crop.

      • Shag from Brookline says:

        Brett ignores the facts on the ground that strengthened slavery and slaveowners with the 1787 Constitution even over the protections provided by the Articles of Confederation, followed by the still further protections provided in the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. Yes, technology enhanced slaveowners’ investments in chattel slavery. And John Calhoun was there to make sure the 1787 Constitution’s slavery protection provisions were enforced politically. By the way, there were several other provisions in the Constitution and Bill of Rights protecting slavery beyond the Senate provisions I mentioned. Brett tells us:

        ” Try to remember that slavery wasn’t the big thing in the 1780’s, that it became later.”

        I wouldn’t rely upon the memory of a self proclaimed anarcho libertarian who has demonstrated his true colors on racial issues at this and other blogs. Slavery eventually “died out” but it took a Civil War with a lot of dying.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    Paul Finkelman’s Disunion article in the NYTimes today (6/2/16) with the title “How the Civil War Changed the Constitution” goes well beyond the 13-15th Amendments.

    • Shag from Brookline says:

      In reply to myself, I pass onTed Widmer’s NYTimes (6/4/15) Disuntion series article “Did the American Civil War Ever End?” as complementary to Paul Finkelman’s Disuntion article.