The term legislative system refers to the institutional arrangement for enacting laws, centered usually on one or two deliberative assemblies that claim to represent the nation. Those bodies may be called the legislature to denote their lawmaking function, or the parliament to denote their deliberative character, or the assembly, congress, or diet to denote that they are organized as a meeting of one house or of two chambers constituting a bicameral assembly.
Political science refers to a legislative system because the institutional arrangement consists of interrelated parts, usually including committees among which the legislative work is subdivided; political party groups, which organize partisan differences among members; one or two chambers, which represent the nation in different ways; and individual members, whose behavior is related in a system of roles defined by formal rules and informal norms.
Legislative systems can trace their ancestry to the parliaments of medieval Europe. Parliaments were originally consultative bodies called by monarchs at irregular intervals. They consisted of leading notables from the territorial constituencies that made up the nation. Their members bargained with the monarch, exchanging consent to the monarch’s need for revenue and soldiers for legal favors to their constituents. In modern times, parliaments exist in one form or another in every country in the world except in two or three countries where they have been temporarily suspended by dictatorial rulers. Most contemporary parliaments were established in the twentieth century in the wake of the proliferation of independent nation-states, although the most influential parliaments have a much longer history. The Inter-parliamentary Union lists 191 parliaments, 114 of them unicameral and 77 bicameral.
Legislative systems are therefore both very old and very widespread political institutional arrangements, signifying that they serve some general political functions, among which representing the nation and legitimating its laws are the most universal. Yet there are also enormous differences among them. The structure of the core institution of the legislative system has some defining characteristics but varies greatly in detail. The size of legislatures ranges from the fourteen-member Congress of Micronesia to the 2,987 membership of the National People’s Congress of China. The size of a legislature is not directly related to the size of a country’s population, but is the consequence of the electoral system used to select the members.
Though all legislatures participate in the enactment of laws, the importance of that participation ranges widely. In the United States, at both the national and state levels, legislatures play a more important part in lawmaking than in any other country. However, even in the United States the executive branch of government has increasingly drafted important legislation, although bills are introduced by individual members of the legislature and the final enactment of all bills, wherever drafted, is significantly influenced by the legislature. In political systems in which leaders of the legislature simultaneously hold ministerial positions in the executive branch of government, the role of the legislature in the enactment of legislation consists chiefly of responding to executive initiatives. In many European countries, that response is the product of intraparty and interparty bargaining, either within parliament or by party leaders in the cabinet. Latin American legislatures were historically subordinated to powerful executives. The consolidation of democracy beginning in the 1990s, however, has tended to transform these legislatures into institutions that insert themselves variously into the policy-making process, depending on electoral systems, constitutional powers, and members’ career ambitions. Where a single party dominates the assembly, as is true in many African and Asian countries, the participation of the legislature may be merely symbolic.
Legislatures have some common organizational characteristics, regardless of the varying influence they have on the enactment of legislation. They must be able to transform the often contentious views of their individual members into collective decisions, whether in the form of law, of declarations of opinion, of selecting leaders, or of overseeing the executive. To achieve collective decisions requires coordination, a division of labor, and agreed procedures. Although their members are formally equal in their representational status, informal leadership hierarchies develop within them, as does a division of labor among committees and consensus on procedures for determining the sequence of action.
Representation of Legislative Systems
The capacity of a legislative system to legitimate legislative enactments depends on its claim to represent the nation. At one time that claim was justified by the stature of the citizens whom the monarch called to meet in parliament. In contemporary authoritarian states it is justified by the presumed authority of a dictator or of leaders of a dominant party to appoint the members. The claim to representativeness is justified by the extent to which the members reflect the full range of that society’s relevant ethnic, racial, religious, and class characteristics, as well as the distribution of members between the genders. In contemporary democracies, representativeness is conferred by competitive elections. Legislatures predate democracy. Democratizing them consisted of extending the right to elect their members from a franchise limited to property holders, to “universal” manhood suffrage, to suffrage without regard to gender, race, or ethnicity, and to the vote for eighteen-year-olds. This development began in the United States early in the nineteenth century, in Great Britain with the first reform of parliamentary representation in 1832, and on the continent of Europe after the revolutions of 1848. It was completed in most countries in the second half of the twentieth century with profound consequences for the composition and internal organization of legislatures.
Democratic legislatures retain the medieval notion that a country consists of geographic communities and that the members therefore should be chosen in territorial constituencies each electing one or a small set of representatives. In a few small countries, there is a single national constituency in which all members are chosen by proportional representation. Political parties, successors to the factions that existed within predemocratic parliaments, organize electorates. Unlike factions, parties work outside of legislatures as well as within them, linking groupings of like-minded members with their voters. Parties nominate candidates, mobilize voters, formulate electoral programs, and attempt to hold the elected members accountable to their constituents. The electoral connection between members of the legislature and the population provides the incentive for members to be individually responsive to their voters. The frequency of legislative elections varies from the two-year term of the U.S. House of Representatives to the modal four-year and five-year terms of most of the world’s legislatures. In parliamentary systems the legislature can be dissolved before the end of its term and new elections can be held under constitutionally prescribed conditions.
To the extent that voters respond to parties rather than to individual candidates, the electoral connection provides the incentive for members to vote in the legislature cohesively by party. This is particularly true in European parliaments in which the electorate is strongly influenced by party labels. Party discipline on roll-call votes exceeds 90 percent in most democratic legislatures outside the United States, except on matters of individual conscience. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century it also attained this level of cohesion on important issues in the U.S. Congress even though members contest their seats far more as individuals than as party members. In parliamentary systems, party discipline in parliament adds to the authority of the executive when the prime minister and the cabinet consist of leaders of the party or parties holding a majority in the assembly. In the U.S. presidential system, where the presidency and Congress are often in the hands of different parties, party discipline may make for “divided government” in which the presidential veto becomes an important source of executive influence over the legislature.
Broadening the right of the population to participate in the selection of members of parliament and broadening eligibility to membership do not necessarily ensure that the composition of legislatures will appear to be representative of the population. A few hundred representatives cannot fully mirror a large population, but democratic publics do expect representative institutions to look like themselves in salient respects. All countries expect that the membership of the legislature should reflect the geographic diversity of the population and most expect that the party composition of the legislature should bear a reasonably close relationship to the distribution of the vote by party in the electorate. Although the nomination of candidates by the political parties is the mechanism by which the composition of the legislature is made to correspond to public expectations, that mechanism is imperfect. The sensitivity of the parties may lag behind voter expectations and election outcomes may in any case be governed by the accidents of the distribution of votes across constituencies and by the electoral system used to translate votes into seats. The very slow increase in the number of women in legislatures exemplifies many of the lags in the mechanism by which changing cultural expectations are translated into changes in the composition of legislatures. Over time, however, legislatures do tend to mirror the expectations of the electorates regarding what constitutes “representativeness.”
Organization of Legislative Systems
The diverse composition of a legislature that makes it representative of a nation also makes it difficult for the members to reach decisions. The legislative system requires organization that is not overtly hierarchical, which distinguishes it from bureaucratic institutions. It must provide coordination among a large number of members, a division of labor that reflects the different interests and different skills of members, and an agreement among all members on procedures beginning with the formulation of an agenda and ending with a decisive vote.
There is commonly a party organization within modern legislatures that results from the method of selecting their members. This produces a leadership hierarchy in each party, consisting of the set of party leaders presiding over party committees, caucuses, or factions. This leadership structures the pattern of negotiation among the party groups, shapes the agenda of the legislature, and guides the sequence of action. In parliamentary systems of government, party leaders occupy the principal positions in the cabinet. In systems where there is a separation of personnel between the executive and the legislature, notably in the United States, the parties within the legislature usually choose their own leaders. Parallel to the party leadership, legislatures also have a formal leadership structure prescribed by their rules, consisting of a presiding officer or officers of the assembly, a steering committee, and chairs of committees. The holders of these offices interact with party leaders in shaping the agenda of the legislature and the pattern of policy negotiation among the party groups.
Legislatures delegate their work to a set of committees, usually specialized by subject matter. Committee organization varies across legislatures, reflecting their varied involvement in the details of lawmaking. In the United Kingdom, which long resisted specialized standing committees, a public bills committee is now appointed ad hoc for each bill introduced in Parliament and there are nineteen standing oversight committees, one for each government department. In the U.S. House of Representatives there are twenty-two specialized standing committees and 135 subcommittees engaged in both the legislative process and in departmental oversight. Most legislatures have a committee structure between these two models. Ten to twenty specialized standing committees are the usual number, and subcommittees are seldom used outside the United States.
Geographically defined constituencies and committee specialization clearly help legislators to identify the special interests of their constituents and to serve them. However, this emphasis on particular interests presents obstacles to the formation of collective decisions. One way members overcome these obstacles is by trading votes with one another. Relying on differences in the intensity of their various preferences, members exchange support on matters of indifference to them for support on matters they care about deeply. This is the basis of “pork barrel” legislation, typically reflected in appropriations providing individual benefits for every member’s constituency. This is the pattern called “distributive politics” or “log rolling,” in which everyone appears to win but the collectivity is ill served. But committee specialization also enables legislatures to compete effectively with the specialized knowledge of executive departments, and the deference that legislative committees show to each other is to some extent also respect for expertise.
Procedures in Legislative Systems
The collective decisions of the legislative system are channeled by written rules of procedure, by interpretations and precedents based on these rules, and by informal norms of conduct. Although legislatures generally have the authority to make their own rules, in practice there is great continuity of procedure over time and substantial similarity across legislatures. Most newly established parliaments borrow the procedures of long-established parliaments in other countries, recognizing the value of the experience of others in designing ways of reconciling the wills of the members of a large assembly.
On the surface it would seem that legislative decisions should be procedurally straightforward, requiring only an agreement on whether decisions be made by simple or qualified majorities. Such an agreement, however, is by itself inadequate for reaching conclusions in legislative systems. Because the system may consist of two houses, a leadership occupying ministerial offices, committees having procedural privileges, and constitutional courts with the power to nullify legislative enactments, a legislative system has many veto points, and bargaining among the veto players does not follow simple voting rules. Even within a single legislative institution, conclusive votes are not easily achieved. Unlike voters in general elections, members of a legislature vote on a constant stream of related issues. As they do so, they interact with each other, taking a variety of interests into account and negotiating compromises. As soon as there are more than two alternatives on which legislators must vote, each successive pairing of alternatives may have a different result, possibly leading to an endless cycle of majority votes with different outcomes. If alternatives are not paired but are presented in a particular sequence, the choice of the voting sequence will affect the result. The varied preference orderings of a group of legislators choosing among many alternatives will not naturally lead to a single decision. Subsidiary rules must determine the sequence in which alternatives are considered and the point at which a vote is final. That sequence will affect the final outcome. Experienced legislators, who often acquire great skill in exploiting particular sequences to their own advantage, have always recognized its importance. Informed observers can distinguish between “tactical” and “sincere” voting.
The impression that legislatures spend too much time dealing with seemingly basic procedural questions overlooks the importance that procedures have for affecting decisions. Rules are not neutral in their effect on outcomes and that is why they can be controversial. They allocate authority among committees and between them and the whole house, between majorities and minorities, between decisions taken at different points in time, and in parliamentary systems between the leaders of parliament in the cabinet and their “backbench” followers.
In the legislative system the lawmaking process begins with the introduction of bills, either by individual members (as in the U.S. Congress), by the cabinet (as in parliamentary systems of government where the cabinet consists of leaders of parliament), by the component states in a federal system (as may occur in Germany), by voters in the form of an initiative (as in Switzerland and some of the states of the United States), or by committees (as in half of the world’s legislatures). Early in the process, bills are nearly everywhere referred to committees. In most countries, committees must send bills to the parent chamber for a final decision. In the Italian parliament, committees may actually enact legislation. Elsewhere committees may revise bills in limited ways, as in Great Britain, or substantially, as in Germany, or even more extensively, as in the United States. In the United States, a committee often fails to report a bill to the whole House. The extraordinarily simple process that allows each member of the U.S. Congress to propose unlimited numbers of bills results in a volume of more than five thousand bills in each biennial Congress, far in excess of the workload of any other legislature. Procedures determine the sequence by which bills are reported back and prescribe restrictions on their further amendment on the floor. In the U.S. House of Representatives, a rules committee proposes a special rule for each important bill to govern the particular circumstances under which the whole chamber will consider it. In the U.S. Senate the sequence of business must be negotiated among the party leaders to achieve the unanimous consent of all one hundred members, because senators are unwilling to delegate this important matter to a committee. Restrictive rules govern final consideration of bills in most legislatures. The appropriation of public funds follows special procedures everywhere, in recognition of the technical expertise required to formulate a national budget and of the temptation of legislators to appropriate funds in excess of what they are willing to vote in taxes.
Where bicameralism exists, it adds to the complexity of the legislative process. When legislatures consist of two houses, as in Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and altogether seventy-seven countries, special procedures govern the ways in which their separate decisions must be reconciled. In the U.S. Congress, a joint conference committee consisting of sometimes more than one hundred members of the two houses, and at times also divided further into subcommittees, attempts to formulate a compromise that can be identically adopted by each house. This committee’s role late in the legislative process gives subject matter specialists who dominate conference committees important influence on the final text of legislation. In other countries, such as Australia, Canada, and France, bills shuttle back and forth between the chambers in a process with the French name la navette. Most of these legislatures grant the directly elected house the last word, giving it power depending on the number of shuttle trips permitted and the patience of each chamber.
Thus, parliamentary organization and procedure produce informal hierarchies and asymmetries by which assemblies of equal members are turned into working bodies capable of decision making. This is also an accomplishment of the subtle, implicit codes of courtesy and good conduct among members that are often called informal norms. In most effective parliaments there is a reciprocity in interpersonal relations that consists of courtesy even in the face of sharp substantive differences, of keeping promises even in the face of intense tactical maneuvering, of cooperation even in the face of competition. Members learn that they must work with each other, learn to respect each other’s burden of work, and learn that even the fiercest political differences are best acted out when they are depersonalized. These norms of conduct or “folkways” contribute to the transformation of a collection of individuals into a corporate body.
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