One of the greatest fears of the U.S. Constitution's framers was a federal tyranny replacing King George III, so they developed the idea of a government with multiple checks and balances. Not only would there be an executive, legislative and judicial branch along with a federal system of states serving as counterweights to the federal government, but they also divided the national legislature into a bicameral body with two distinct chambers.
The Origins of the Bicameral Congress
America's founders were primarily of British descent, and the bicameral English Parliament demonstrated its effective checks and balances. Most of the colonies had bicameral legislative bodies at the end of the American Revolution as well as the federal congress under the Articles of Confederation. In the Constitution, they incorporated the dual house system into the new Congress. Even the design of the Capitol building with its two distinct wings reflects this structure.
Dispersion of Power
To avoid concentrating power in the hands of a few, Congress is uniquely structured. The House of Representatives is comprised of members who represent population districts within each state, while members of the Senate represent the states themselves. Additionally, every two years only a third of the Senate faces election while the entire House is subject to the vote. These overlapping layers of time, constituencies and individual members of Congress are meant to disperse legislative power.
Enhancing the Deliberative Process
While an electoral college elects the President, and the Senate represents the states, the House of Representatives is closest to the people. Its purpose is to bring the voice of constituencies before the federal government and generate laws to meet the people's needs. Since the House also manages spending, control of the purse strings belongs to the people. By forcing the two bodies to work together, a bicameral system ensures more voices are heard, reduces corrupt influence over Congress, eliminates the ability of power to fall into the hands of a few and deliberately slows the legislative process to ensure fairness and reduce rash legislation.
Factors Eroding Bicameralism's Benefits
The ideal of a bicameral legislative process and its contribution to federalism, however brilliant in theory and practice initially, is undermined by factors the Founders could not predict. Originally designed to be a people's legislature, members of Congress voluntarily rotated themselves out of office and did not even receive a salary until the 1850s. Service in Congress was never meant to be a lucrative position, but the advent of professional incumbency has allowed individual members to amass tremendous power.
George Washington warned of the danger of political parties, and the United States Congress has become more a partisan battleground than a deliberative body. The influence of special interest money has detached Congress from the will of the people and some argue the passage of the 17th Amendment weakened federalism by making senators directly elected rather than the previous method of appointment by the state legislatures.
- Your Guide to The Bicameral Legislature
- The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies: Ramifications of Repealing the 17th Amendment
- Roger D. Congleton, Professor of Economics West Virginia University: Constitutions: Colonial Evolution of Governance
- Congressional Quarterly: Structure and Powers of Congress
- California State University: Political Parties and Interests Groups
- Average Years of Service for Members of the Senate and House of Representatives, 1st – 111th Congresses
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