by Rod Hague and Martin Harrop

Chapter Fifteen: Legislatures

Chapter Notes

  • The representative role of legislatures, exemplifying liberal and democratic politics. Their growing significance in a democratic world.
  • Structure. Number of members influenced by population. The predominance of unicameral legislatures; accountability of the parliamentary executive to this chamber. The functions of a second chamber as a liberal check and as a representative of the states in federations. Strong and weak bicameralism. Mode of selection to second chambers: direct election, indirect election, appointment. The need for divergence in selection procedure between the two chambers.
  • Functions of modern assemblies: representation, deliberation, legislation, authorizing expenditure, making governments, and scrutiny.
  • Interpretations of representation: descriptive and substantive representation. Representation through party as the crucial device.
  • Deliberation: debating matters of national moment. Burke’s notion of the trustee. Effected either through floor debate or through the 'policy refinery' of committees. Debating vs. committee-based legislatures.
  • Legislation: much governance does not involve law-making. Dominance of the executive in law-making. Some exceptions: under coalitions (e.g. Scandinavia) and where committees are strong (e.g. USA). The process of law-making, including means of reconciling differences between the two houses, e.g. conference (mediation) committees as ‘third chambers’.
  • Authorizing expenditure: now usually executive-controlled. The American exception. An effective role for the legislature in the budget requires committees with time, information and amendment authority. Reversionary budgets as the default if no budget is made.
  • Scrutiny: an emerging and useful role. Techniques of oversight: questions and interpellations, emergency debates, confidence votes and committee investigations.
  • The importance of committees to the modern legislature. Standing, select and conference committees. Committees generally weaker where party is strongest but Scandinavia is an exception. Effective committees need expertise, intimacy and support.
  • Membership: the rise of the professional politician and perhaps of a political class. American entrepreneurs vs. party careerists elsewhere. The large incumbency effect and its effect in slowing turnover. Term limits as an unsatisfactory response. Celebrities-turned-politicians vs. politicians-turned-celebrities. Political dynasties and families create the danger of a political caste rather than class.
  • The European Parliament. A committee-based institution with organized political groups based on the left-right divide and attitudes to deeper integration. Its influence over legislation has increased enormously and it functions as a deliberative and scrutinizing body. But it remains weak as a representative, executive-making and budget-making body. Its authority remains less extensive than that of national parliaments in member states.
  • Legislatures in authoritarian states. Hobbled by large size and infrequent sessions. Grievance-raising and constituency representation. But parliaments do provide some legitimacy to the rulers and they incorporate moderates into the regime. China’s National People’s Congress has established a role in the country’s power network as it becomes more professional and less deferential. But it has not acquired the full authority of a legislature in a democracy. Even in hybrid regimes such as Russia, the legislature remains a tool of the governing elite.

Figures and tables

Multiple choice questions

Essays and term papers

  1. Is the role of legislatures declining, evolving or both?
  2. 'A legislature is known by the committees it keeps.' Discuss.

Hague & Harrop, 2013 edn, ch.15.

R. Corbett, F. Jacobs and M. Shackleton, The European Parliament.
L. Dodd and B. Oppenheimer, Congress Reconsidered
S. Fish and M. Kroenig, The Handbook of National Legislatures: A Global Survey
G. Loewenberg, S. Peverill and R. Kiewiet, Legislatures: Comparative Perspectives on Representative Assemblies
L. Longley and R. Davidson, The New Roles of Parliamentary Committees
P. Norton, Legislatures
P. Norton, Parliaments in Western Europe
D. Olson, Legislative Institutions: A Comparative View

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