One of the assumptions behind the development of the legislative bodies of the American Congress is the idea that the division between the population-based lower house, House of Representatives, and the state-based upper house, the Senate is derived from the Connecticut Compromise of 1787 (also known as the “Great Compromise”) to give equal power to small and large states. While this may be true, as seen in later years, the clear power lies in the upper house, rather than the lower. For a country that claims to support democracy, there is a clear preference for the minority, the elite. Even the British House of Lords, an unelected body in Parliament, has far less power relative to its American counterpart. What the hell, USA?
The numbers clearly paint a dismal picture. Every American knows that bills (motions) need to pass through both houses and be signed by the President to be considered law. However, when one considers the makeup of the House (435 representatives) and the Senate (100 senators) and considers that they are put on equal footing, this clearly favors the minority in the Senate in legislation. Term lengths are longer in the Senate, at six years, over the two years in the House, enabling senators to set agendas over much longer periods of time. Also presidential appointments to the Cabinet are passed through the Senate over the lower house, in contrast to, for example, the French political system, where the appointment of the Prime Minister (American: Speaker of the House), who determines cabinet posts, is controlled by the lower house, the Assembly.
The Green Party has and continues to support the abolition of the Senate, but even its most radical candidate, Ralph Nader, refused to endorse that position. Even opponents of the measure recognize that to oppose the Electoral College but support the Senate is a logical contradiction. A true majoritarian approach, by conservative columnist George Will’s view, is to abolish both. While seemingly unconnected, this point is important to bring up because according to a Gallup poll, over sixty percent of Americans want to abolish the Electoral College, which would also call for a need to discuss abolition of the Senate.
There has never been an attempt to abolish the Senate at the federal level, but there is one example of a unicameral legislature at the state level: Nebraska. Named the Unicameral for its unique structure, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature came about as a result of a constitutional amendment heavily supported by a Republican senator, George Norris. Norris wrote several articles, even one in the New York Times, a feat for a small Middle state. What were the arguments for and against unicameralism in the 1930s? Arguments against the measure were that the system would challenge the original constitutional order, though it seems some of the Founders would approve. The arguments for unicameralism were that bicameral houses could easier conceal their own failure by blaming the other, bicameralism was historically based on an elitist system (House of Lords vs Commons). and that unicamerlism was more efficient and cheaper.
What happened? Since conversion to a single house, the Unicameral has been more efficient and less expensive. With fewer representatives, the cost of paying legislator’s salaries went down significantly. The removal of a house lowered the number of committees, increasing the efficiency of the legislature. With a single house, the legislative system is more visible in terms of legislation passing and failing. Responsibility is all in one body, making it difficult for people to shift blame. If Nebraska is any indication, unicameralism is a clear success.