Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion

The forthcoming article “Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion” by Lawrence Ezrow, Michele Fenzl, and Timothy Hellwig is summarized by the authors below.

In The Federalist Papers (No. 62), James Madison asserted that introducing a second legislative chamber was an effective tool to diffuse power and prevent the tyranny of the majority.  Our study, however, suggests that the presence of a strong second chamber reduces a key source of government legitimacy: policy responsiveness to public opinion.  

We show that the organization of the legislature, into one or two chambers, affects whether governments deliver policy that reflects the changing preferences of the public. This question has gained prominence in recent political debates in Europe. For example, in 2014, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tried to pass a constitutional reform that would have weakened the Senate. The rationale that was put forward for weakening the upper house and thus the “perfect” bicameralism of the Italian Parliament was precisely to grant the government more leeway to respond to socio-economic challenges and public demands.  

Our findings support this reasoning. Our theory emphasizes the distribution of power between chambers and how equal power distributions can reduce the ability of governments to respond to shifts in public opinion. Drawing on data on public opinion and policy outputs, we analyze the role of citizens’ preferences for the design of welfare and immigration policies across fourteen established democracies.  We find that governments are more responsive to shifts in public opinion in systems with a single dominant chamber than under strong bicameralism. Furthermore, evidence from the case of Belgium, wherein the fourth State Reform shifted power away from the Senate, confirms that policy became more responsive to public opinion after the Senate was weakened.  

These findings are important for theoretical and policy reasons. With respect to theory, we evaluate an often overlooked prediction for how institutions affect democracies. To some, bicameral institutions matter because the presence of an upper chamber reduces prospects for policy outcomes to diverge from the status quo. For others, the influence of such institutional arrangements over policy outcomes stems from the specific distribution of authorized control between chambers over decision-making. We build on both perspectives and show that the number of chambers matters—and so too does the power distribution between them. In terms of policy implications, our study shows that reforms, such as that completed in Belgium in the 1990s and the one proposed in Italy in the 2010s, can strongly affect policy-making processes in democracies. The findings should therefore inform discussions also in other contexts, such as the United Kingdom, where reform of the House of Lords has been a point of discussion for well over a century by members of parliament and constitutional scholars seeking to modernize Britain’s democracy.  

About the Authors: Lawrence Ezrow is a Professor of Government at the University of Essex, Michele Fenzl is a Post-doc in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich, and Timothy Hellwig is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. Their research “Bicameralism and Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: