The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§9. For the present I shall only assume that, for good government in a modern civilised community, a representative assembly, of which the members are elected for a limited time, should constitute at least an important part of the legislative organ. Let us now proceed to consider briefly the size, organization, and mode of working of such an assembly. As we have seen, its proper function is not exactly to frame laws, but rather to determine the character of the legislative measures to be brought forward, and by an adequate critical deliberation on their details to shape and mould them into the form best adapted to satisfy the complex needs, and to secure from injury the complex interests, of the different classes of citizens affected by them. It is for this function that the representative system has seemed to us specially adapted: and obviously the larger a representative assembly is, the more fully---other things being equal---its representative character admits of being developed, and the more varied and comprehensive will be the information and experience that it can bring to bear upon the problems presented to it. Moreover, the larger a legislative body is made, the more difficult it becomes for the members to combine successfully for purposes recognised as improper. On the other hand, the enlargement of the assembly beyond a certain point tends to give undue advantage in debate to the less valuable qualifications for oratory, and makes its meetings more liable to lapse into the confusion, impulsiveness, and intemperance of a mob: and it involves the further drawback that the members have greater difficulty in obtaining useful personal knowledge of each other. The most suitable number can only be determined by a rough balance of these opposing considerations; and it will reasonably vary with the size of the community; but we may perhaps take the number (670) of the English House of Commons---the largest of modern representative chambers---as an extreme limit, if not clearly excessive. In any case the whole assembly is likely to be too large a body for the profitable discussion of the details of legislative measures; and the varied knowledge and experience which it may be expected to contain will be more effectively applied to its work if it is broken into committees, to each of which the consideration of certain classes of measures is allotted; the final adoption or rejection of any proposed law being reserved to the House as a whole. Whether the main preparation of legislative business should be left in the hands of a single leading committee, is a question of which the decision is likely to be influenced by the relation of the legislature to the executive: but this arrangement has important advantages, from a purely legislative point of view, since the concentration of responsibility that it involves is conducive to a systematic and well-considered ordering of legislative work. The initiation of legislation should in any case be open to all members, the House being free to determine to what extent and under what conditions any legislative proposal should be orally debated.

A point of some importance is the determination of the minimum number required either (a) for the opening or continuance of debate, or (b) for the validity of any decision. For the first purpose a comparatively small ``quorum'' ought, I think, to suffice: since it hardly seems desirable to subject legislators to any irksome coercion to attend debates in an advanced stage of civilization; as the printing-press supplies a means of considering the arguments for or against a legislative proposal, often preferable to speeches. Again, since, in the multiplicity of legislative business, there must be many subjects on which the majority of members would in any case allow their votes to be determined by the opinions of a comparatively small number, it does not seem expedient to make a high minimum of votes or attendance absolutely necessary for the validity of decisions: all that seems needful is to provide that questions are not designedly or accidentally decided in a manner opposed to the really predominant opinion of the assembly. The simplest way of attaining this result seems to be to arrange that a decision shall be valid however small the number voting, if it is not challenged but that it may be challenged if the number voting falls short of a certain proportion of the whole; and that, if it is challenged, the decision shall be deferred till a fixed time on the following day, and shall be then decided without debate by a majority of those voting, however small the number may be.

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