The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§8. We have seen that one of the arguments against the restriction of eligibility just considered, is that it tends to weaken the tie of confidence between the majority of the citizens and their representatives. A similar objection applies against the method of election in two stages which has been adopted in more than one modern constitution; according to which the citizens at large merely elect electors to whom the election of legislators is entrusted. Moreover, where the party-system is fully developed, there is a danger that the double election may be reduced to a cumbrous formality: the intermediate electors being chosen under pledges---or if pledges are illegal, under a stringent though tacit understanding---that they will vote for the candidates of their party. This might perhaps be prevented by choosing the intermediate electors for comparatively long periods, independent of the duration of the legislative assembly: but then the ordinary citizen's sense of control over legislation would be further weakened. It might also be partly prevented by giving the immediate electors other important functions besides that of electing legislators:---e.g. by giving the election of legislators to organs of local government elected by the citizens at large:---but this would have the drawback of introducing alien considerations into the election of the local governors; since the man who would be preferred as an elector to the central legislature may not be best qualified for the function of local government or may not be willing to undertake it. At the same time election in two stages has certainly a prima facie tendency to improve the quality of the legislative assembly, if it does not become a formality, and if both parts of the process are performed with independence and honesty of purpose: since the competence of the elected electors may be expected to be on the average greater than that of the citizens who elect them, and their sense of responsibility stronger: also either set of electors is more likely to have useful personal knowledge of the candidates among whom it has to choose. On the whole, it would seem that the advantages of the plan of election in two stages are likely to be greatest, and its drawbacks least, if it is reserved for the appointment of a second and supplementary chamber, designed to be less directly under popular control than that which is primarily the ``House of Representatives'',---supposing that such a second chamber is held to be desirable as a part of the legislative organ.

We are thus led to the last of the principal expedients which have been proposed or adopted to remedy the defects of a legislative assembly elected by a widely extended suffrage most simply applied. We have considered five modes of modifying the suffrage:

  1. By restricting the active electoral right.
  2. By distributing representatives not in proportion to numbers.
  3. By organising representation of minorities.
  4. By restricting the right to be elected, formally or practically.
  5. By election in two stages.

It remains to discuss the method, just mentioned, of placing side by side with the House of Representatives a legislative body otherwise appointed---a ``Senate'' or ``upper chamber''. This modification of the structure of the legislative organ has been adopted in most modern constitutions. It is, however, of such fundamental importance that it seems desirable to reserve the discussion of it for a separate chapter: and, for reasons that will appear in the sequel, I think it best to defer this discussion until we have considered the proper construction of the executive organ of government, and its normal relations to the legislature.

For similar reasons I shall also defer several important questions connected with the constitution and functions of the legislature: such as (1) how far its powers should be constitutionally limited, either to secure the independence of other organs or on other grounds: (2) whether elections should be at fixed intervals, or at the discretion of the executive or of the constituencies; and if at fixed intervals, how long the intervals should be, and whether the renovation of the assembly should be total or partial: (3) whether the sessions of the legislature should be continuous through the year, and if not, whether the opening or the closing of legislative sessions should be fixed, or left to the discretion of the legislature, or of the executive: (4) whether the validity of disputed elections should be determined by the assembly itself or by the judiciary: (5) whether the initiation of legislative measures should be formally open to the executive, or to private citizens combining, in sufficient numbers, as well as to members of the assembly.

[Back to:] [Forward to:] [Up to:]