Congress' Bicameral System

High School ・Political Science ・MLA ・5 Sources

The Framers held a strong conviction that only by the will of the people could the unity of the United States be accomplished. They formed a bicameral national legislature, for this reason, i.e. Two separate governing houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives, were to be made up of Congress. The architecture of the Congress of the United States is threefold; first, a Senate was set up to control the popularly elected Assembly, second, to allow Congress to control the executive's influence, and third, to ensure equal representation from all parts of the nation. Although there have been challenges, it can be said that the bicameral structure of Congress has been effective in achieving these purposes.

The Senate, which is also called the upper house, is smaller, made of only a hundred members who serve a longer term in office (six years). Each state, regardless of its size, has two seats in the Senate, a move aimed to ensure there is equal representation. Originally, senators would be elected by state legislatures but are now elected directly by the people as per the seventeenth amendment of the US constitution. The house of representatives, also called the lower house, is bigger as it has 435 members. In addition, members of this house serve shorter terms of two years before having to seek re-election. This house was constructed in a way that representation remains proportional to population i.e. bigger states are allocated more seats as compared to smaller states. Despite the fact that each house has it unique powers and responsibilities, they mostly work in parallel. This means the functions of a senator and a congressman to the national government are more or less the same. For any piece of proposed legislation to become law, it has to be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The first reason for a bicameral legislature was an issue of historical precedent.  At the same time American colonist staged a rebellion against Britain rule, they also borrowed many ideas about governance from their experience as a colony of Britain. The British parliament was made up of two houses. One of them is the upper chamber filled with representatives of the high in society and also referred to as the House of Lords. The other is the House of Commons, referred to as the lower chamber and made up of representatives of the common people. This example greatly influenced the framers and their thinking in constructing and empowering the American Congress. The secondary reason was more theoretical. The framers were suspicious that a unicameral legislature wouldn't provide the necessary checks and balances thus would consolidate excess power in a single institution. By having legislative power shared out by the two houses, they would be able to check the authority of either of the chambers and theoretically prevent one from gaining too much power.

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The last and arguably most important reason can be said to have been the issue of practical politics. The constitutional convention of 1787 was attended by delegates from twelve out the thirteen original states (Vile 180). The delegates recognized that all states were not equal in size and population. The smaller states were afraid that they would not be influential in the federal government and therefore demanded each state, regardless of their size, have the same number of representatives in the senate. On the other hand, the larger states countered that representation should be based on population. The reasoning behind this idea was that large states had more votes and should, therefore, have more votes in Congress as well. This led to a fierce battle that dragged on for the best part of the summer of 1987 and threatened to derail the entire constitution making process (Clark 1429). The bicameral system emerged as the best opportunity for compromise. It came to be known as "The Great Compromise" as it allowed all states to be equally represented in the upper house while representation in the house of representative was to be proportional to the size of the state, thus all were content.

However, there has always been a debate on how great the "the great compromise" really was. Among the principles of democracy is that each man should have one vote. Following this principle questions can be asked about how democratic the United States Senate really is. The latest census reports show that California (which is the largest states with a population of 37 million), has 73 times the population of Wyoming which has little over half a million people ( According to the current structure of the Senate, these two states have two seats in the Senate as equal representation. This effectively means that each citizen in Wyoming is worth 73 times an American in California. It can be argued that the Senate failed in achieving equal representation. While the current system can be attributed as a success for ensuring that individuals in smaller states are not entirely ignored in the political process, it fails in that citizens in larger states like California and Texas do not get the right to "one person, one vote" (MacNeil and Baker 359)

On the issue of providing checks and balances, the Framers believed that if laws had to be approved by two separate chambers, one representing the governments of various states and the other serving the people, Congress would not pass legislature hurriedly or carelessly. One of the houses could always check the other just as in the British Parliament. Such a balance of power is important for effectiveness and to prevent tyranny from one institution. The design of the US Congress is also meant to grant it the authority to check the actions of the executive arm of the government. An example of this powers being applied by the legislature is impeachment. Another is the power to override vetoes by the president and enact the bill into law. For such an action however, there must be a two thirds majority in both the senate and the House of Representatives and one house cannot override a President’s veto. Congress also has to vet and either approve or turndown presidential appointees.

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For the checks and balances system to be considered effective, it has to ensure that there is fluidity of decisions and allows the different branches to work together without one dominating. To this end, it can be argued that checks and balances are effective through the various ways the legislature plays an approval role to many presidential such as having to confirm presidential appointees, ratify treaties, holding the sole power to declare war among others. The people therefore still hold much power and democratic rule, through the Congress, while also enjoying federal rule. The process of impeachment for a president, his deputy, and an officer of the US government can only be done by the House of Representatives while the Senate is tasked with trying all impeachments. No one house, therefore, can successfully impeach an official without the other. An example if the impeachment of presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton by the House of Representatives but were acquitted by the Senate (Randall 236).

It can be argued that most of the intentions of the framers of the constitution in designing a bicameral legislature have been successful. There is equal representation for all states in the Senate and proportional representation of citizens in the House of Representatives. The system of checks and balances can also be said to have been successful both houses depend on each other such that none becomes too dominant. However, the system can be said to have failed in the principle of one person one vote as all states have equal representation in the state although some have a higher population than the others. 

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Works Cited

Clark, B.R. "Constitutional Compromise and the Supremacy Clause." Notre Dame Law Review. 83.4 (2008): 1421-1440. Print.

MacNeil, Neil, and Richard A Baker. The American Senate. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Randall, Richard S. American Constitutional Development. 1st ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.,. "State Population United States 2016 | Statistic". Statista. N.p., 2017. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

Vile, John R. The Constitutional Convention Of 1787. 1st ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

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