Link to scientific article:
- A. Pedrazzani, F. Zucchini (2020) ‘Useless approvals’. Italian bicameralism and its decisional capacity, THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES, ISSN: 1743-9337
Passing a law in the parliament takes time and resources. Once proposed, a bill must fit into the parliament’s busy schedule and go through a complex series of stages that involve various committees. The proposing legislators must put much effort into securing majority support in order for the bill to be approved. Things get twice as complicated in bicameral parliamentary systems. Once the bill is passed by the lower house, the whole process must start over in the upper house.
Considerable resources are wasted if the lower house passes a bill that won’t be approved by the upper house and will never be enacted into law. Yet this is no rare occurrence in modern legislatures, including the Italian parliamentary system. In fact, this seems to be the rule rather than the exception – a puzzling circumstance that deserves careful consideration. One house of the Parliament passing a law that has no chance of being enacted into law may be seen as a sign of the inefficiency of the legislature as a whole.
How can MPs be regularly passing bills to no avail? A study by the University of Milan examined the parliamentary procedure regarding the reading of bills approved by the lower house of the Italian Parliament between 1979 and 2018, meaning 5,600 draft bills in forty years of parliamentary history. The bicameral system and the different party composition of the two houses are the likely culprit of this complicated procedure. Let us see why.
Why bills are passed to no avail
No passing without enactment into law can occur in unicameral systems, where one house is responsible for the approval of bills with no further waste of resources. The same happens in bicameral legislatures where the lower house has more powers than the upper house. In the UK, for instance, the House of Lords can delay but not reject a bill passed by the House of Commons.
There are good reasons to assume that “truly” bicameral legislatures – in which the upper house is no less powerful than the lower house – would not be inefficient either. Suppose that all actors in the parliament – legislators, parties, the government – were rational actors. Since the upper house has the power to amend or reject any bill approved by the lower house, actors in the lower house could strategically anticipate future scenarios and pass a bill that members of the upper house, too, would be willing to approve. If legislators had all the necessary information on the parliamentary procedure and would only be interested in the enactment of the bill, they would not draft it in such a way that the upper house would not pass it even if the lower house would. That would be a waste of resources indeed.
Yet this happens more often than not. In the Italian Parliament, 20% of all bills passed by either chamber between 1979 and 2018 has never been enacted into law. In other words, one bill in five has been approved by one chamber to no avail.
There are two possible explanations for this. First, actors in the lower house of the parliament may not have all the information required to anticipate the behavior of actors in the upper house. They may incorrectly believe that the bill they are passing will be passed by the other house, too, while in fact it is more likely to be amended or rejected. Second, legislators proposing a bill may not be so much interested in its actual enactment after all. Even if only one house passes it, they can always tell voters that they did all they could to have it approved, especially if the proposed law is particularly meaningful to them.
Heterogeneous chambers don’t match
Enactment into law does not fail by chance. This outcome may be explained by assuming that the actors involved behave in a perfectly rational way, but it is all the more likely to occur when the two houses are politically heterogeneous in terms of their party composition. The electoral system may result in one party having a very different weight in either chamber. As it was often the case in recent Italian history, a majority party may even not have majority support in one of the two chambers.
The more politically heterogeneous the two chambers are, the more difficult it is for legislators promoting a bill in the lower house to anticipate the outcome of its readings in the upper house, the less chances one party or member of parliament has to have a bill passed – even if only by one chamber – and capitalize on it electorally. Heterogeneous chambers lead to more unavailing readings.
The results of the study by the University of Milan show that the most vulnerable bills – i.e. those with a high chance of being passed by one house of the parliament but not by the other – have been introduced in legislatures with a highly variegated chamber composition. Complex bills with a wide scope are also less likely to be enacted into law: when different and/or delicate issues are at stake, legislators are less capable of anticipating the outcome of the bill’s reading in the upper house. Government-introduced bills, by contrast, tend to be less vulnerable to amendment in the parliament as the government usually has a firmer grasp of overall parliamentary politics and therefore is less likely to propose a controversial bill.
Criticism without reform: the Italian case
Italy’s bicameral system has long been the target of criticism by policymakers, scholars, and observers. The Italian legislature is indeed unique in having two houses with identical procedures and government relations. Nonetheless, the existing bicameral system was favored by the overwhelming majority of voters who, in the 2016 referendum, voted against the constitutional reform of the symmetric legislature that aimed at limiting the power of the Senate (Italy’s upper house). Critics argued that a symmetric legislature does not result in reduced efficiency since parliamentary procedures are no longer in Italy than in other countries, nor do they effectively hamper governmental action. Other contended that the proposed reform would weaken not only the Senate but the entire Parliament, thereby unduly empowering the government.
The study by the University of Milan partially contradicts these claims. A symmetric legislature may be especially inefficient: differences between the two houses of the parliament in terms of party composition make it more complicated for legislators to introduce bills with a high chance of success. Since parliament-introduced bills are typically less successful than government-introduced bills, the action of the Parliament is also more limited. Moreover, comprehensive bills are less likely to be enacted into law, yet they usually include reforms invoked in the public debate. Finally, the study stresses the key role played by the electoral system. When devising new rules, the political heterogeneity of the two chambers should be a primary concern. In the March 2018 election, the current system yielded a homogeneous legislature. But no one knows what will happen in the next election since the September 2020 referendum reduced the size of the Parliament, thereby giving more power to individual members, especially Senators.