Tricameral Legislatures

I.

In a recent post, we argued that the US Senate is actually a pretty liberal institution, even when it happens to be controlled by conservatives, because it helps safeguard minority opinions against the majority.

That said, there’s a lot to dislike about Congress. The big sticking point in our book is gridlock. If a bill is popular in the House and the Senate doesn’t like it, that bill is never making it to graduation. The same is true for a bill popular in the Senate that the House can’t stand. There are too many opportunities for individual officials to obstruct the process. If the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader decides to stomp on a bill that everyone else likes, there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Right now, every legislature in the world is either unicameral — a single group of legislators make all the laws — or bicameral — two groups or chambers of legislators each write and pass laws and then duke it out. 

Unicameral legislatures are pretty straightforward, but they have a number of drawbacks. There are many ways to elect legislators, but you’ll probably have reason to regret your decision, whatever you choose. If your legislators are all noblemen (as was once the case in countries like the UK) most of your population doesn’t have representation. If your legislators are elected proportionally, based on population (as is the case in the US House of Representatives), you end up with a populist system that makes it easy for the majority to abuse any minority. Regardless of how you determine who gets to be a legislator, if you only have one chamber, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong in that chamber, and they’ll pass some really stupid laws. 

Having two chambers mitigates these issues, especially when the chambers are elected in different ways. A populist chamber that tries to pass anti-minority laws can be blocked by a chamber that better represents minorities. A chamber of elites that tries to pass a discriminatory law can be blocked by a populist chamber. This system of checks and balances has obvious benefits compared to letting a single chamber run everything, and this is a large part of why many legislatures are bicameral. Unfortunately, this leads to political gridlock.

II. 

So why stop at two?

One chamber is tyranny. A second chamber introduces checks and balances, but leads to political gridlock. A third chamber can introduce further checks and balances, and break the deadlock to boot.

In the two-chamber system, a bill can be introduced by either chamber, but it needs the approval of both chambers to be sent to the executive branch to be signed into law. This creates a bottleneck. 

In a three-chamber system, we can relax that requirement. Any of the three chambers can propose a bill, and if they can get one of the other chambers to approve it, then it goes to the executive. If we have three chambers, A, B, and C, a law can be passed by A & B, B & C, or A & C working together. That way if one of the chambers is deadlocked on an issue, or one powerful legislator is trying to keep a bill from being passed, the other two chambers of congress can just work around it. 

Currently in the US government, a presidential veto can only be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in both the House and the Senate. In a three-chamber system, there could be more than one option. A veto could be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in the two chambers that originally approved it, or by a simple majority vote in all three chambers.

You could extend these principles to a system with 5, 7, or even more chambers, but three is complicated enough.

This isn’t an entirely new idea — tricameralism has been tried a few times before. But the most recent major attempt was apertheid-era South Africa, so it seems like a fair bet that we can do better.

III.

The main distinction between the three chambers would be in how they are elected.

Let’s imagine how this could play out in an ideal scenario. One of the chambers should have proportional representation, like in the US House of Representatives. We also think it’s a good idea for one of the chambers to have intentionally disproportionate representation, like the US Senate, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be by state. 

How should the third chamber be organized? We have some ideas.

Religion

As we argued in our earlier piece on the Senate, disproportionate representation can be good because it can protect minority groups from the whims of the majority. This doesn’t make all that much sense when the representation is by state — residents of North Dakota are not what we normally mean by “minority” — but maybe we can take this and run with it.  

When we talk about minorities, we usually mean ethnic or religious minorities. So one thing we could do is make a chamber where every ethnic group or every religious group gets equal representation. For example, in a religious legislature, there might be 10 seats for Christians, 10 seats for Muslims, 10 seats for Sikhs, 10 seats for atheists, and so on. This would mean that even if, for example, the majority of a country were atheists, religious minorities would still have a stake in writing the laws of the country. 

This may sound outlandish to Americans, but this is pretty much how Lebanon’s legislative branch is set up. As an extremely diverse country with a history of sectarian violence, Lebanon’s parliament was designed so that there will always be 64 Christian and 64 Muslim (plus Druze) representatives.

This approach protects minorities in a very structural way, which is great. There are a couple reasons to dislike this idea, however. First of all, the boundaries between different ethnic groups and different religions are pretty unclear. Do Catholics and Protestants count as “the same religion” for the purposes of allocating seats in this new chamber? How about Mormons? Do atheists and agnostics get separate representation? What if someone invents a new religion? How many representatives go to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Will the chamber be taken over by Satanists?

Second, building a legislative body around something like race or religion puts the power to decide these questions in the hands of the government. We like government pretty ok, but we don’t think it should be deciding which religions “count” as separate religions.

Third, we think that dividing people up this way supports ideas like racial essentialism, which are basically a form of racist pseudoscience.

Ultimately it seems that this is a system that might work in some places (including Lebanon), but is politically dicey overall.

Native Americans

If there’s one group in America that really deserves more representation, it’s Native Americans. 

This chamber would be really simple. There are 574 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States, and each government would get a seat, electing their representative however they wanted to. 

We do notice that 231 of these tribes are located in Alaska, however. Many of them seem to have populations of only a couple hundred people, which seems a little bit disproportionate even by the standards of disproportionate representation. Probably the thing to do would be to give each of the twelve Alaska Native Regional Corporations the same level of representation. 

Native American tribes are, at least nominally, sovereign nations, and maybe it sounds weird to give a sovereign government a say in writing our laws. Well…

Foreigner-Only Chamber

There’s an old joke that the President is mayor of the United States and Dictator of the World. The President has little more than advisory power at home, but can more or less rule the globe with an iron fist. This seems unfair. 

There’s another old joke about making Israel the 51st state, which is that they would object on the grounds that they’d only get 2 votes in the Senate. Good idea, why not.

America should take its role as a superpower more seriously. American laws influence the whole world, so maybe we should give the rest of the world some say in our laws. They already get ambassadors, so why not representatives. What’s more, America is home to millions of immigrants, who can’t vote and don’t get any representation.

In this chamber, each of the 195 or so countries of the world would send one representative, who would vote on laws just like any normal member of Congress. Naturally, the USA would get one representative in this chamber as well, and it would probably make sense to have that representative serve as the president of that chamber, as the Vice President does for the Senate.

This may seem like handing over the reins to foreign powers, but this chamber can’t pass any laws on its own. To pass a law, it would have to work with either the House or the Senate, so everything still has to be approved by an all-American body. And anyways, the President can still veto any law they want.

In addition, this chamber gives us a surprisingly strong carrot & stick for international relations. Any country would jump at the chance to have a say in setting American policy. Offering a seat, or threatening to take it away, is something that foreign powers would take seriously. If we threatened to kick Russia out, they would pay attention, and it’s interesting to think what North Korea might agree to if we hinted we might give them a seat in Congress. If this chamber existed today, I would say we should kick Myanmar out right away.

This system does seem like it might be a little hackable. After all, what’s to stop a country from breaking up into many smaller countries to get more votes? On reflection, however, if other world governments want to balkanize themselves to get more representatives, that’s ok with us, especially since plenty of regions already want to do this.

Age Bracket

A problem with most governments is that they are the tyranny of the old over the young. This is perverse because young people will live to see the full consequences of the laws passed today, while old people may not. Old men declare war, but it’s young men who have to fight and die. Again, this seems pretty unfair.

It’s true that (in the US) young people can vote and run for many offices once they turn 18 (though maybe it should be even younger). But it’s also true that the average age of congress is 58 years old, and about 40% of them are over 65. Only one member of congress is under 30, the 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), but he doesn’t seem particularly representative of his age bracket.

I’ve heard that taxation without representation is bad, and while we could in theory be doing better, the fact of the matter is Americans ages 18-29 have only one representative in the House and no representation at all in the Senate. 

In our third chamber, representation could be by age bracket. Decades seems like the natural breakdown here, so we might assign 10 seats to people in their 20’s, 10 seats to people in their 30’s, and so on. Representatives would be elected for 2-year terms, and the main qualification would be that you would need to be in the proper age bracket on election day. If I ran as a 29-year-old and won, I would serve out my term as a representative for 20-somethings. Once my term was up I could run for the same chamber, but because I would then be 31, I would have to run as a representative for 30-somethings.

It’s not clear how far we should take this — the elderly deserve representation too, but we probably don’t want to mandate a voting block of representatives in their 90’s. Because other chambers tend to skew old, maybe it would make sense to have a cutoff at retirement age. Let’s imagine we raise the retirement age to 70 (possibly a good idea on its own), and so the final bracket in this chamber would be 70+. If an 80-year old ran for a seat in this chamber, she would be running to represent everyone age 70 and up.

Legal scholar @tinybaby, proposes a similar system, saying, “each state should have an allocation of 100 years of age for their senators. you can send two 50 year olds but if you want dianne feinstein in the senate you gotta send a 13 year old too”. All we can say is that this is an even more creative solution.

Height 

With some of these systems, it’s hard to know how to slice and dice the population for representation. This is how we end up with things like gerrymandering, which no one likes except politicians.

A solution to this is to use metrics that are easy to measure and hard to fake. For example, we could have a chamber composed entirely of the 100 tallest people in the country. Wait, that’s just basketball players. Ok, why not the NBA (& WNBA) winning teams for that year? At least we’ll know that these representatives are good at something. 

People already complain about politicians spending too much time dunking on each other, and not enough time on policy. If this is going to happen anyways, let’s at least make the dunking literal.

Party-Breaking Chamber

America seems to have a problem passing laws, even when they’re laws that most Americans approve of. Most Americans support some form of single-payer healthcare. Two-thirds of Americans, including 55% of Republicans, support legalizing marijuana. 93% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans support background checks on firearm sales at gun shows. Support for expanded background checks is high even among members of the NRA. And of course, more than 80% of Americans want stimulus checks in response to the pandemic. Or you know, any kind of stimulus at all, please. Despite this, none of these policies have become law, and none of them seem to be coming any time soon.

One explanation for this standstill is the constant partisan bickering. According to this explanation, our representatives are too busy dunking on each other (see above) and scoring points for their parties to actually do their jobs. 

If this is the case, one solution would be a chamber that forces the two parties to work together.  This chamber would look a lot like the Senate — each state would elect and send two representatives. The twist is that every state would have to send both a Republican and a Democrat, so the chamber would always be 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

We’ll take another page out of Lebanon’s playbook here. In Lebanon, all elections are by universal suffrage, so a Christian candidate needs to court votes from Muslim voters in their district, and vice-versa. The same would happen for this chamber — representatives would be elected in a general election, not a primary, so they would benefit from getting votes from members of the other party. Like every state, Massachusetts would have to send one Republican, and the Republican they chose would undoubtedly be the one who best figured out how to appeal to liberal voters.

This precludes all the usual fights over who controls what branch of government, at least for this chamber. In this chamber, no party is ever in control — it’s always 50/50.

If the votes in this chamber were by simple majority, then because both parties have 50 seats, either party would be able to pass any law they wanted to. That’s not what we want, so in this chamber, laws can only be passed by a two-thirds majority. As a result, you literally cannot pass a law in this chamber unless it’s strongly supported by both parties.

No more fighting over the most controversial issues of the nation. Leave that to the House and the Senate. In this chamber, there’s no point trying to pass a law unless you think it has a chance at broad appeal — and the hope is, this would encourage them to aim for the policies that most Americans already want.

Animals

There are lots of humans in America, but there are even more animals. They deserve representation too, from the greatest moose to the lowliest grasshopper. They deserve some kind of… animal house. That’s the whole joke, sorry.

Nomination

There’s another old problem with democracy, which is that you can only elect people who are running for office. These people are naturally power-hungry; you can tell because they’re running for office. Who would want to vote for that guy? As Douglas Adams put it: 

“The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

The problem with elections is you’re electing someone who decided to run. They want power, and that means you can’t trust them.

There are also many people who we like and trust, but who wouldn’t want to run for Senate or wouldn’t do a good job if they did, people like (depending on your political views) Adam Savage, John Oliver, Oprah (or Oprah for men, Joe Rogan), Cory Doctorow, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s ghost. Not all of these people are living American citizens, but you get the idea. I don’t know if many of these people would make good legislators. I think most of them would even turn down the job. But there’s some political savvy there that we’re letting go to waste.

So let’s cut the Gordian knot on this one by combining these two issues into a solution. We want to find people who would be good at governing but who would never think of running, and we want to take advantage of the political savvy of people who wouldn’t make good legislators or wouldn’t even take the job in the first place. 

So what we do is we elect clever people as nominators, and let them nominate people they think would be good for the job. In this chamber, you can’t run for a position. What you can do is run to nominate people to this chamber. If you win, you get to nominate people for a few — let’s say three — positions. Assuming they accept the nomination, the people you choose serve out a normal term in congress. 

To keep this from being politics-as-usual, there would need to be some limits on who could run as a nominator and who could be nominated. The whole benefit of this system is to bring in genius from outside the normal political world, people who would normally be too humble to run. We can’t have this system filled up with career politicians, because the whole point is that constantly bringing in new people is a good way to flush out the swamp. 

To begin with, nominators can’t have been elected to any state or federal position. If they win, and nominate people to this chamber, they are barred from politics, and can’t run for any position or hold any office in the future. This keeps them from being consistent kingmakers.

Similarly, we want the members of this chamber to be intelligent outsiders, so nominees can’t have been previously elected to any federal position. We think state and lower elected positions might be all right, as this would be a good way to elevate someone gifted from local politics to the national stage. Unlike nominators, however, nominees should be able to run for office in the future. They can’t be nominated to this chamber again, but if they do a really great job and everyone agrees they’re a wonderful politician, it’s clear they would be able to do well in the the House or Senate, and they should be allowed to run for other offices.

This does sound a little strange, but many of our most important federal officials are already appointed. In fact, one of the main powers of the president is appointing officials like ambassadors, cabinet positions, federal judges, and many others. In some ways, the president is really just a super-nominator position. This chamber is simply taking the good idea of appointing officials, making it more democratic, and extending it to Congress.

Normal People

One of our favorite things about the idea of nomination is that it’s a way to get normal people, who can’t or wouldn’t run for office, involved in government directly. We liked this so much that it got us thinking about other ways you might be able to get normal people involved in government.

Originally we played around with different ideas about how to find normal people who could be elevated to office. A chamber composed of the most viral tiktokers that year? A chamber of the mods of the 20 subreddits with the most subscribers? A chamber of the best dolphin trainers? These are very democratic ideas, but we couldn’t find a way to make them work. All these ideas would be immediately captured by people seeking to gain office, which defeats the porpoise, and reddit would be in charge of our electoral security, which seems like a big ask. There’s also surprisingly strong circumstantial evidence that Ghislaine Maxwell was the moderator of several major subreddits, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.

These people are more normal than Ted Cruz politicians, but reddit mods and twitch streamers are not exactly normal either. They’re regular people, but they’re not all that representative.

True Lottery

So instead, why not a chamber elected by lottery? In this chamber, representatives are randomly drawn from the population of all adult citizens, or maybe all registered voters.

Most of these people would have no experience in government. To account for this, each member of this chamber would be elected for terms of 6 years, but with the terms staggered, so that every two years only one-third of the members would be replaced by lottery. (This is exactly how the Senate does it.) This means that while every one of these representatives was randomly drawn from the population, at any given time one-third of them would have at least four years of experience, one-third of them would have at least two years of experience, and one-third of them would be incoming freshmen.

A member could theoretically be elected to this chamber more than once, but because election is by lottery, the chances of this happening are pretty damn slim (though given how weird the world is, it would probably still happen at some point). However, like the nomination idea above, these randomly-elected legislators might do such a good job that they would go on to be directly elected to other branches of government.

While you might be concerned about a chamber filled with randomly selected Americans, this chamber still can’t pass laws without the help of either the House or the Senate. It’s true their views will probably be more diverse than the views held in the House and the Senate, but you say that like it’s a bad thing. 

In some ways, this encompasses many of the other ideas we described above, and does a better job of it. A chamber elected by true lottery will not only be balanced in terms of demographics, it will actually be representative. The distribution of gender, age, race, education, religion, profession, and so on in this chamber will all be nearly identical to the United States in general. Gerrymandering literally can’t affect it, since it’s a random sample. It’s hard to imagine a better way of getting diverse voices in politics.

The US is currently paralyzed by partisan bickering, but most Americans are less partisan than their representatives are, and might be more interested in getting things done for the country than scoring points for their party. 

The US currently has a hard time passing laws that 70% of Americans approve of. Maybe a chamber of normal Americans would help these popular ideas finally become law.

10 thoughts on “Tricameral Legislatures

  1. Drachely says:

    > One of the chambers should have proportional representation, like in the US House of Representatives

    … what. The US House of representatives is nowhere near proportional representation. It’s a set of single-member districts.

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  2. Doug S. says:

    The “nominators” has the same problem that the original idea behind the Electoral College did. Would-be candidates recruit people who publicly promise to nominate them, and then the people are just voting for candidates again, except by proxy.

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  3. John Hall says:

    Are you familiar with the government of the old Roman Republic? Everyone remembers the Senate, but unless you dig into it you don’t know about the Centuriate Assembly and the Tribal Assembly. It had features of a tricameral system during this period.

    The Tribal Assembly was basically organized based on geography, as in the House of Representatives, but the Centuriate Assembly is quite unique. The Centuriate Assembly organized the population into classes based on how much they contribute to the military (ultimately based on wealth). Not all of the classes had the same number of people in them, so the lower classes might represent significantly more people. The voting worked such that the wealthiest classes votes first and if a decision is made by a majority of them, then the lower classes do not even need to vote. This made is more aristocratic. It was very powerful, responsible for declaring war and appointing consuls and other senior magistrates.

    Applying this approach to the US might suggest a House of Taxpayers whereby each member represents a segment of the US population based on how much they pay in taxes. For instance, the top 1% of taxpayers might have 39% of the Congresspeople, the next 4% might have 20%, and so on reflecting the share of taxes they pay. (any proposal like this should significantly constrain campaign contributions to the House of Representatives so that the high taxpayers have less influence there)

    The other interesting thing is how to structure the voting. The author mentions requiring two of three houses to approve a bill. However, it is also reasonable to have houses have specific authority over certain areas. For instance, the US House of Representatives must introduce any bill raising revenue or spending money. In a tricameral system you could require that the House of Representatives must approve one of these bills along with either of the other two Houses. There’s a lot of interesting things a country could do. For instance, you could have a House of Military Veterans and require that any declaration of war or authorization of offensive military force also be approved by that house and the Senate.

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  4. Eric says:

    How about making the third house be a nationwide referendum? If a law were passed by the House or Senate but not both, it could go to a referendum in the next election. If passed, it would become law.

    If you think that allows for too many laws to be passed, require a 60% in favor in the referendum.

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  5. Mark Magagna says:

    Not sure if the problem is difficultly getting laws passed – there seem to be more laws passed every year.

    The problem seems to be difficulty with resolving certain highly contentious issues. This would seem to be inherently difficult.

    As for “out-there” ideas for a third chamber – why not a chamber whose purpose is to remove laws? I know it has been proposed before (not sure how seriously).

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  6. I like the idea of having a third chamber by jury duty, as long as I’m not the one called to serve. I would hate to uproot my family, my career, etc., to go to Washington for six years.

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    1. Veekhr says:

      The other chambers’ members don’t uproot their whole family anymore. It used to happen, but the reality is transit is easy and it’s just more practical to rent in DC and maintain the home you already have now. Spouses typically have a career they have to maintain and fundraising operations are usually based in the home district as well so they are incentivized to maintain the home district house. Another thing I have thought of is how the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act could be expanded to include people who accept service in a legislative jury duty system. Members wouldn’t spend time fundraising for an election, so they could literally spend half the year working in DC and another half working at home in their regular jobs.

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  7. Another possibility might be… the President! That is, instead of the current US setup where the House, the Senate, and the White House *all* need to agree, you could just change *that* into a 2-of-3 system. Of course, that would make passing legislation a whole lot easier — whether that’s a feature or a bug is a separate question.

    (I’ve also been wonder whether, in general, 2-of-3 is easier or harder to pass legislation in than 1-of-1… it’s of course definitely way easier than 2-of-2. My guess is it’s also probably easier than 1-of-1, but I’m not sure how to think about it.)

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