Before We Abolish the Senate

In recent discussions on the need to cut down the size of government and its expenses, many have questioned whether it is necessary to have two federal houses of parliament. After all, goes the argument, they are virtually never in disagreement with each other. The ruling party controls both chambers and thus, any notion of one operating as a checks and balances mechanism against the other is mere fiction – one set of lawmakers is clearly redundant.

It is tempting, in the red mist of revolutionary fervour, to align oneself with this position and demand, on the singular basis of unnecessary expenditure, that one of the legislative chambers be abolished.

However, we know from basic economics that apart from cash cost, there is also an opportunity cost to be considered when allocating scarce resources.

To ascertain the opportunity cost of moving to a unicameral legislative system, one must first understand the thinking behind designing legislatures to consist of two chambers. My research suggests that there are at least two cogent reasons for it – philosophy and representation.

On the underlying philosophy, NYU law professor, Jeremy Waldron, in a very informative paperwhich I urge every “change agent” to read, begins his discussion with an interesting anecdote, which I have reproduced in full: ‘Herodotus and Tacitus report that the ancient Goths of Germany, when they had to decide anything important – like going to war, or moving their settlements or entering into a treaty – they would debate it not once but twice. The first time, they would debate the issue drunk, the second time they would debate the issue sober. Drunk – to give a bit of vigour and spirit to their deliberations; sober, to add a dimension of prudence and discretion.’

These ancients believed in the wisdom of two different approaches to considering an issue, almost in the style of two-heads-are-better-than-one, with the expected consensus hopefully being somewhere in the middle of the two ‘ideological’ extremes. The idea was also to guard against the likely tyranny of a legislature with no checks.

There is also a less politically correct thesis, which in spite of its inherent classism still rings true.

The fact is if true democracy is really practised, it would result in the supremacy of the will of the masses/the mob (as the majority) over that of the minority elite. Even for the rigid idealists, it is clear that the affairs and policies of state cannot be left exclusively to the will of the majority.

The history of the US Congress provides an excellent example of how bicameralism serves to ease fears of lopsided representation in the legislature. At the constitutional convention, delegates from smaller states were fearful of having no voice in government and advocated representation on an equal basis regardless of the size of the state. Larger states insisted on representation based on population and the convention seemed headed towards gridlock. The bicameral system solved both problems. Each state got an equal number of senators, with the number of lower house representatives being determined by population.

To recap, therefore, bicameralism guarantees against the subjugation of smaller constituent members (population wise) and should also serve as a wiser, calmer counterfoil to the effervescence of the will of the people.

If, in the quest to reform the legislature, we were to opt for a unicameral assembly, what would we be gaining apart from the expected savings in salaries and emoluments?

Currently, we would not be losing much. The president’s party, the PDP, has the majority of the seats in both houses and is therefore the party from which the speaker and the senate president are drawn. Apart from the dispute, a few years ago, over which house was the ‘lower’ house, the two houses have taken identical positions and reached identical conclusions on the issues and laws they have considered.

The senate can hardly be said to have been a calming, more enlightened voice on the house of representatives. The house of representatives itself can hardly be said to be the voice of the masses, there being very little difference in the ilk of members of both houses and the distance between the electorate and those who have represented them so far in this dispensation.

Taken with the relatively insignificant number of laws that would facilitate development and the huge amounts spent on legislators’ remuneration (which embarrasses them to anger each time they’re reminded),  bicameralism does not appear to have demonstrated any of its touted benefits in Nigeria, since the current democratic dispensation began in 1999.

But democracy and reform should be about building enduring institutions. We should be working towards the answer we want, rather than away from what we find undesirable. The distinction between the two is very fine but it exists nonetheless. If each manoeuvre we make seeks to neutralise what we perceive as bad rather than establish the good we desire, we run the risk of ‘playing’ what Arsene Wenger refers to as ‘anti-football’ and establishing an ‘anti-democracy’ – establishing democratic institutions that are primarily designed to handicap government rather than a system for the ages.

Our discussion must therefore not simply be about the financial cost. There are undoubted benefits to bicameralism.

Rather than jettisoning bicameralism, could we think instead of maybe tweaking the version we currently practice to bring it closer to what would be best for us?

Could the constitution be amended such that the Speaker and the Senate President never come from the same party?

Can there be a default number of people-sponsored bills that must be debated each year in default of which the bills pass as presented?

To truly make the senate a bedrock of wisdom, can we work towards minimum educational/experience requirements for would-be senators?

Are there other measures we can employ to ensure that allowances and sham investigations are not all our legislators are preoccupied with? If the answer to all these questions is a resounding no, then perhaps there truly would be no further point to two legislative houses and our dialogue can then move on to creating the best unicameral legislature possible.


This piece was first published in TheScoop.

One thought on “Before We Abolish the Senate

  1. Interesting piece…particularly liked the bit of history from the Jeremy Waldron paper on how the ancient Goths of Germany would debate issues twice. Unfortunately, it seems our National assembly is always debating drunk, never sober. Also, i would add that another way of probably reducing the financial costs associated with law making in Nigeria is to reduce the number of lawmakers we have. Maybe, 1 or 2 senators from every state, and half the current number of representatives. Legislation making it necessary for lawmakers to spend more time in their constituencies (not needing to relocate to Abuja with all the costs associated with that) will definitely go a long way.


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