Why Bicameralism?

The Benefits of Bicameralism

The Different Character of the Senate and the House of Representatives

It might be said that the Framers wished to reap the benefits of an upper and lower chamber of the legislature without paying the costs. They hoped to imbue the upper chamber of the legislature with greater wisdom and stability than the lower house, but without establishing an aristocracy. They did this by making the Senate a smaller body, states granting the states equal representation, and by the state legislators instead of the people.

Consequently, instead of representing the nobility as a separate class of people, U.S. Senators would represent states as separate political entities. They would also be elected for long periods and with staggered terms. A six-year term meant that this body could be trusted to act with more independence, stability, and foresight. And finally, Senators must be at least thirty years old, and they have longer citizenship and residency requirements than members of the House of Representatives. The Senate was therefore expected to be a more mature body and have stronger ties to their states and the country as a whole. The expectation that the Senate would be a more dispassionate and deliberative assembly than the House is reflected in the unique powers it was given, such as trying cases of impeachment and approving treaties and appointments.

The Senate as an Upper House

Stability Without Aristocracy

During the Constitutional Convention, Madison presumed that “the Senate would be generally a more capable set of men” (June 13). For this reason, the Senate was expected to temper the more impulsive actions of the lower house. At those moments when the more popular body falls into passionate error, Madison wrote in Federalist No. 63, “how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?” There was a danger, however, in establishing an upper house that might be removed from the needs and desires of the people, for even if Senators were not nobility, they still might become too detached from the citizenry. The House of Representatives could serve as a check on that danger.

The House of Representatives as a Lower House

A Body Closer to the People

The Lower House was meant to represent the interests and opinions of the people more directly. The number of Representatives would therefore be proportioned to the population within each state (which would necessarily make them a larger body); its members would be chosen directly by the people, generally within smaller districts; and they would have to be re-elected every two years. All of these provisions were meant to bind the Representatives more closely to the will of their constituents.

Collectively, the House was meant to be what James Wilson advocated at the Constitutional Convention: “the most exact transcript of the whole society” (June 6). The qualifications for Representatives are also less stringent than those for Senators. They could be as young as twenty-five, and they might have spent much less of their lives in the United States. Clearly, maturity and experience mattered less than knowledge of and sympathy with local interests. The different powers given to each body reflected what was expected of them. The House was presumed to be more representative of the direct will of the people. 

The Relationship Between the House and the Senate

A Deliberative Process and an Internal Check

By imbuing each house with a distinctive character through their different size, qualifications, powers, and modes of election, the Framers could imitate the best traditions of separating power while remaining wholly republican. Even if the Senate did not always act with greater wisdom and maturity than the House, it was still considered beneficial to subject each piece of legislation to a double-review process. Passing each piece of legislation through two bodies slows the legislative process, making it more deliberative. Alexis de Tocqueville, during his travels through America in the 1830s, commented that, while the U.S. Senate and House were truly distinct bodies with their own characteristics, the separate chambers of the state legislatures were usually indistinguishable from one another. Nonetheless, he praised the Americans for their wisdom in maintaining the bicameral legislature:

“In dividing the legislative body into two branches, the Americans had no intention to create one hereditary assembly and another elected one; they did not mean to make the one an aristocratic body and the other a representative of democracy… To divide the legislative power and thus to slow down the movement of the political assemblies and create an appeal tribunal for the revision of laws were the only advantages resulting from… its two chambers. Time and experience have convinced the Americans that although these are its only two advantages, the division of legislative powers is yet a necessity of the first order.”

Today one often hears complaints about “gridlock” in the legislature. The Founders, however, were intentionally seeking ways to slow down the often rash and precipitate legislative process, a process which frequently resulted in voluminous, inconsistent, and ill-judged laws.