Dreaming Double

As promised, some thoughts on Jeremy Waldron’s new paper on bicameralism, which I summarized last week.

First, Waldron’s take on bicameralism reflects his usual fondness of and optimism about legislatures. Legislatures can really be great at making policy, resolving disagreements, and protecting rights, he is convinced, if only they function well. “Legislative due process” is an important concern of his; he is sharply critical of legislatures that do not properly scrutinize and debate the bills they enact into law, for example.

He presents bicameralism as a means to enhance “legislative due process” by introducing a second locus of debate about bills and also possibly by adding different points of view to the mix by virtue of making the two chambers of the legislature representative in different ways. In theory, this sounds great. In practice, I wonder whether bicameralism can live up to its promise. Bicameralism will not serve to increase the amount of debate unless both chambers are in fact committed to fully debating the bills before them. But – to take up the mischievous-or-superfluous argument that Waldron criticizes – if there is commitment on the part of one chamber to debate bills in full, how much is there to be gained by then adding a second full debate? Different modes of representation need not produce different perspectives (as the increasing similarity of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the U.S. shows), especially if the process of representation, however it is organized, is dominated by political parties. Representatives’ views are likely to be function of their partisan commitments much more than of the way they are elected.

Waldron is aware of this danger. Although he accepts that party politics are here to stay, he worries about the executive dominating the legislature, and thinks that an executive-dominated second chamber would be worse than useless. He has two (closely related) solutions for this problem. First, prevent members of the second chamber from serving in the Cabinet. Second, make the second chamber not about government, but about oversight, and hope that voters notice the difference (and vote accordingly). But here again, I have strong doubts about the effectiveness of his proposals. The Canadian Senate shows that even people without any prospect of serving in the Cabinet can be quite partisan. In the U.S. too, many Senators probably lack executive-branch ambitions, yet are fiercely partisan (as are, of course, members of the House of Representatives, for the vast majority of whom the Senate is the height of their ambitions). And I wonder about the possibility of a second chamber exercising good -faith scrutiny – not tainted beyond redemption by partisan affinity or hostility – over the work of a first.

So, Waldron’s arguments in favour of bicameralism seem more hypothetical than real; and there are other problems with bicameralism that he does not fully address. The main one is that of conflict between the two chambers, for which the responsible-government constitutional system is simply not equipped. The lack of any provisions to address this issue, by the way, is a disastrous flaw in the current Senate reform proposal in Canada. Of course, any such provisions would profoundly affect the working of Parliament and require constitutional amendment (even if, and it’s a big if, the current proposal does not).

The problem is this. If the second chamber does exercise its scrutiny role properly (even more if it is motivated by partisan opposition to the government), it will sometimes reject important government bills. What then? If the bill is a matter of confidence (as are all money bills, and possibly some others), its defeat by convention triggers the government’s resignation or dissolution of Parliament, usually the latter. But is it a good idea to hand to a second chamber with a “will of its own” (as Waldron wants it) the power to threaten and eventually to force dissolution at any disagreement? If this power can be exercised for partisan purposes, as it seems bound to be, this is a recipe for disaster, with elections coming as often as the second-chamber majority thinks it can install its allies in power. On the other hand, so long as the government thinks it has more to gain from an election than the second-chamber majority, it will be able to ride roughshod over the second chamber’s scrutiny by making any bill a matter of confidence and thus threatening dissolution if it is rejected.

Now we might specify that defeat of a bill in the second chamber never constitutes a loss of confidence in the government, so that it does not trigger resignation or dissolution. But then, we need a mechanism other than an election for getting over the conflict between the two chambers, at least for those bills that need to be passed, such as budgets.  How this is to be done is not obvious (though not impossible), but whatever mechanism is, its existence dilutes the power of the second chamber to reject the government’s proposals and thus diminishes the benefits Waldron hopes for it.

Thus I think that meaningful bicameralism in Westminster-style constitutional systems is bound to remain a dream, and attempts to realize it might turn into nightmares. It would be better, I think, to try to work on the hugely important issues Waldron is concerned about – legislative due process, executive domination of the legislature – by improving existing Houses of Commons (and unicameral provincial legislatures in Canada). Because, as Waldron notes, executives don’t like sharing power, this will be difficult enough.

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