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Bicameral Legislature: Definition & Features

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  • 0:01 Bicameral Legislatures
  • 0:37 Definition and Examples
  • 2:15 Features of the House…
  • 4:09 Features of the Senate
  • 5:20 Working Together
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we learn about bicameral legislatures, giving a definition and some features of this system. We'll discuss the importance of this system in the United States in detail, to understand how the House and Senate are structured and operate.

Bicameral Legislatures

What makes Nebraska's legislature unique? Unlike all other states and the federal government, Nebraska has a unicameral legislature. In this state, there is only one chamber, or house, which makes laws. All others have two that work together, usually called the House of Representatives and the Senate. For this reason, we say that these states and the federal system have bicameral legislatures, where 'bicameral' means 'two houses.' In this lesson, we will learn about the function of the legislature and discuss the importance of the bicameral system in the United States.

Definition and Examples

A bicameral legislature is the lawmaking body of a system of government where authority is shared between two separate houses, or chambers, that work together to make laws. In the United States, the two chambers are called the House of Representatives and the Senate. We refer to them collectively as Congress.

There are many other countries with bicameral legislatures. The length of term and the method of appointment, or election to serve, vary from place to place. For example:

  • Algeria: The Council of the Nation, including some appointed and some indirectly elected members, and National People's Assembly, which is directly elected by the people
  • Australia: House of Representatives and Senate, both directly elected by the people
  • Brazil: The Federal Senate (Senado Federal) and Chamber of Deputies (Camara dos Deputados), both directly elected by the people
  • India: Council of States (Rajya Sabha), including some appointed and some indirectly elected members, and People's Assembly (Lok Sabha), almost entirely directly elected
  • United Kingdom: House of Commons, directly elected, and House of Lords, some appointed and some hereditary

Notably, there are two types of bicameral legislatures to consider. In some countries, the bicameral legislature also has executive authority, usually referred to as a Parliament, which means that the members both write and carry out their laws. In others, including the U.S., the executive branch has separate authority from the legislative branch, the power to execute but not write law.

Features of the U.S. House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is comprised of 435 members, elected by their respective states to serve the people of their districts. This total is a fixed number, so each state gets a proportional number of members based on its population, as determined in the most recent census. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. Those with larger populations have more representatives than smaller ones. California has the most as of 2015 (53), while Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming each have one, elected at large by all voters of the state, to represent everyone. There are also members from U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Proportional representation is part of the Virginia Plan, a compromise made by the Founders when creating the Constitution, which allowed for larger states to have more representation in this chamber, closer to the ideal of 'one person, one vote.'

Article I of the Constitution outlines the requirements to be a member of the House of Representatives. First, you must be a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, either since birth or after naturalization (the process of becoming a citizen). Second, you must be a resident of the state that you want to represent. Third, you must be at least 25 years old.

Members of the House of Representatives serve for 2-year terms. As a result, the entire House is reelected every two years, which makes it much more responsive to the American public. In order to win election so often, members must maintain close contact with their districts and constantly work to improve their districts. The House is characteristically much faster than the Senate at writing and approving new bills. However, both the House and Senate must approve a bill in the exact same language before it is sent to the president to approve or veto as a new law.

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