AskDefine | Define bicameral

Dictionary Definition

bicameral adj
1 composed of two legislative bodies [ant: unicameral]
2 consisting of two chambers; "the bicameral heart of a fish" [syn: two-chambered]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Latin bi-, two, + cameralis, from camera, chamber or room, + adjective suffix -alis


  1. Having two chambers or houses. Used of legislatures which have two separate groups or chambers.
  2. Of a typeface, having two typographic cases: uppercase and lowercase.
    Bicameral (upper- and lowercase) unserifed roman fonts were apparently first cut in Leipzig in the 1820s. —Robert Bringhurst (2004), The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.0, p 255.


Extensive Definition

In government, bicameralism (bi + Latin , chamber) is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers. Thus, a bicameral parliament or bicameral legislature is a legislature which consists of two chambers or houses. Bicameralism is an essential and defining feature of the classical notion of mixed government. Bicameral legislatures tend to require a concurrent majority to pass legislation.

Theory of bicameral congress

Although the ideas on which bicameralism is based can be traced back to the theories developed in Ancient Sumer and later ancient Greece, ancient India, and Rome, recognizable bicameral institutions first arose in medieval Europe where they were associated with separate representation of different estates of the realm. For example, one house would represent the aristocracy, and the other would represent the commoners.
The Founding Fathers of the United States eschewed a formal aristocracy, but favored a bicameral legislature. As part of the Great Compromise between large states and small states, they invented a new rationale for bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally, and the lower house would have them represented by population.
In subsequent constitution making, federal states have often adopted bicameralism, and the solution remains popular when regional differences or sensitivities require more explicit representation, with the second chamber representing the constituent states. Nevertheless, the older justification for second chambers — providing opportunities for second thoughts about legislation — has survived. A trend towards unicameralism in the 20th century appears now to have been halted.
Growing awareness of the complexity of the notion of representation and the multifunctional nature of modern legislatures may be affording incipient new rationales for second chambers, though these do generally remain contested institutions in ways that first chambers are not. An example of political controversy regarding a second chamber has been the debate over the powers of the Canadian Senate.
The relationship between the two chambers varies; in some cases, they have equal power, while in others, one chamber is clearly superior in its powers. The first tends to be the case in federal systems and those with presidential governments. The latter tends to be the case in unitary states with parliamentary systems.
Some political scientists believe that bicameralism makes meaningful political reforms more difficult to achieve and increases the risk of deadlock (particularly in cases where both chambers have similar powers). Others argue strongly for the merits of the 'checks and balances' provided by the bicameral model, which they believe helps prevent the passage into law of ill-considered legislation.



Some countries, such as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States link their bicameral systems to their federal political structure.
In the United States, Australia, Mexico and Brazil, for example, each state is given the same number of seats in the legislature's upper house. This takes no account of population differences between states — it is designed to ensure that smaller states are not overshadowed by more populous ones. (In the United States, the deal that ensured this arrangement is known as the Connecticut Compromise.) In the lower houses of each country, these provisions do not apply, and seats are allocated based purely on population. The bicameral system, therefore, is a method of combining the principle of democratic equality with the principle of federalism — all citizens are equal in the lower houses, while all states are equal in the upper houses.
In Canada, the country as a whole is divided into a number of Senate Divisions, each with a different number of Senators, based on a number of factors. These Divisions are Quebec, Ontario, Western Provinces, and the Maritimes, each with 24 Senators, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, each with 1 Senator, and Newfoundland and Labrador has 6 Senators, making for a total of 105 Senators.
In the German, Indian, and Pakistani systems, the upper houses (the Bundesrat, the Rajya Sabha, and the Pakistani Senate respectively) are even more closely linked with the federal system, being appointed or elected directly by the governments of each German Bundesland, Indian State, or Pakistani Province. (This was also the case in the United States before the 17th Amendment.)
There are also instances of bicameralism in countries that are not federations, but which have upper houses with representation on a territorial basis. For example in South Africa, the National Council of Provinces (and before 1997, the Senate) has its members chosen by each Province's legislature.
In Spain the Spanish Senate functions as a de facto territorial-based upper house, and there has been some pressure from the Autonomous Communities to reform it into a strictly territorial chamber.
The European Union maintains a bicameral legislative system which consists of the European Parliament, which is elected in general elections on the basis of universal suffrage, and the Council of the European Union which consists of members of the governments of the Member States which are competent for the relevant field of legislation. Although the European Union is not considered a state, it enjoys the power to legislate in many areas of politics; in some areas, those powers are even exclusively reserved to it.


In a few countries, bicameralism involves the juxtaposition of democratic and aristocratic elements.
The best known example is the British House of Lords, which includes a number of hereditary peers. The House of Lords represents a vestige of the aristocratic system which once predominated in British politics, while the other house, the House of Commons, is entirely elected. Over the years, there have been proposals to reform the House of Lords, some of which have been at least partly successful — the House of Lords Act 1999 limited the number of hereditary peers (as opposed to life peers, appointed by the government) to 92, down from around 700. The ability of the House of Lords to block legislation is curtailed by the Parliament Act. Further reform of the Lords is planned.
Another example of aristocratic bicameralism was the Japanese House of Peers, abolished after World War II and replaced with the present House of Councillors.

Unitary states

Many bicameral systems are not connected with either federalism or an aristocracy, however. Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Ireland and Romania are examples of bicameral systems existing in unitary states. In countries such as these, the upper house generally exists solely for the purpose of scrutinising and possibly vetoing the decisions of the lower house.
In some of these countries, the upper house is indirectly elected. Members of France's Senate, Ireland's Seanad Éireann are chosen by electoral colleges consisting of members of the lower house, local councillors, the Taoiseach, and graduates of selected universities, while the Netherlands' First Chamber is chosen by members of provincial assemblies.

Subnational entities

In some countries with federal systems, individual states (like those of the United States and Australia) may also have bicameral legislatures. Only two such states, Nebraska in the US and Queensland in Australia, have adopted unicameral systems.
However, in early United States history, unicameral state legislatures were not totally uncommon: even though twelve of the original thirteen States (Pennsylvania being the only exception) had a bicameral legislature at the time of the Philadelphia Convention, some of the new States didn't immediately adopt such system. It was not until 1836, for example, that Vermont finally created a Senate.
During the 1930s, the Legislature of the State of Nebraska was reduced from bicameral to unicameral with the 43 members that once comprised that state's Senate. One of the arguments used to sell the idea at the time to Nebraska voters was that by adopting a unicameral system, the perceived evils of the "conference committee" process would be eliminated.
A conference committee is appointed when the two chambers cannot agree on the same wording of a proposal, and consists of a small number of legislators from each chamber. This tends to place much power in the hands of only a small number of legislators. Whatever legislation, if any, the conference committee finalizes must then be approved in an unamendable "take-it-or-leave-it" manner by both chambers.
During his term as Governor of the State of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura proposed converting the Minnesotan legislature to a single chamber with proportional representation, as a reform that he felt would solve many legislative difficulties and impinge upon legislative corruption. In his book on political issues, Do I Stand Alone?, Ventura argued that bicameral legislatures for provincial and local areas were excessive and unnecessary, and discussed unicameralism as a reform that could address many legislative and budgetary problems for states.
In Australian states the lower house was traditionally elected based on the one-vote-one-value principle, whereas the upper house was partially appointed and elected, with a bias towards country voters. In Queensland, the appointed upper house was abolished in 1922, while New South Wales there were similar attempts at abolition, before the upper house was reformed in the 1970s to provide for direct election. Nowadays, the upper house is elected using proportional voting and the lower house through preferential voting, except in Tasmania, where proportional voting is used for the lower house, and preferential voting for the upper house.

Arab political reform

A 2005 report on democratic reform in the Arab world by the US Council on Foreign Relations co-sponsored by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Arab states to adopt bicameralism, with upper chambers appointed on a 'specialised basis'. The Council claimed that this would protect against the 'tyranny of the majority', expressing concerns that without a system of checks and balances extremists would use the single chamber parliaments to restrict the rights of minority groups.
In 2002, Bahrain adopted a bicameral system with an elected lower chamber and an appointed upper house. This led to a boycott of parliamentary elections that year by the Al Wefaq party, who said that the government would use the upper house to veto their plans. Many secular critics of bicameralism were won round to its benefits in 2005, after many MPs in the lower house voted for the introduction of so-called morality police.


  • The Parliament in Austria, which consists of the and the ; all of the have unicameral parliaments.
  • the and in Germany; they form two distinct bodies not framed by a comprehensive institution; all of the have today unicameral parliaments.
  • Parliament in India, which consists of the (House of the People) and the (Council of States); some of the states also have bicameral legislatures namely (Legislative Assembly) and (Legislative Council).
  • The Parliament in Italy, which consists of two chambers that have same role and power: the Senato della Repubblica (Senate of the Republic, commonly considered the upper house) and the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies, considered the lower house) with twice as many members as the Senate.
  • The of the Republic of Ireland which consists of (the House of Representatives) and (the Senate)
  • Parliament in Malaysia, which consists of the (House of Representatives) and the (Senate); all of the state legislatures are unicameral.
  • Parliament in Pakistan, which consists of the National Assembly and the Senate; all of the provincial assemblies are unicameral.
  • In Spain, the , with the (Congress of Deputies) and the (Senate)

See also

bicameral in Catalan: Bicameralitat
bicameral in Czech: Bikameralismus
bicameral in Danish: Tokammersystem
bicameral in German: Zweikammersystem
bicameral in Spanish: Bicameralidad
bicameral in French: Bicamérisme
bicameral in Korean: 양원제
bicameral in Indonesian: Sistem dua kamar
bicameral in Italian: Bicameralismo
bicameral in Luxembourgish: Zweekummersystem
bicameral in Malay (macrolanguage): Dwidewan
bicameral in Dutch: Tweekamersysteem
bicameral in Japanese: 両院制
bicameral in Polish: Bikameralizm
bicameral in Portuguese: Bicameralismo
bicameral in Russian: Бикамерализм
bicameral in Swedish: Tvåkammarparlament
bicameral in Thai: ระบบสองสภา
bicameral in Turkish: Çift Meclislilik
bicameral in Chinese: 兩院制

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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