Monday, 10 February 2003

More Lords Reform

Jacob T. Levy has the scoop on the latest discussions in blog-world (from Iain Murray and Michael Jennings) on the abject failure of Lords reform in Britain to get anywhere. (I meant to post on it earlier but got distracted by bright, shiny objects.) The telling sentence:

Now that the traditional British constitution has been abolished, with astonishingly little debate and no clear sense of what to replace it with, that's proving to be a real disadvantage.

Incidentally, upper houses in general have proved themselves rather pointless without either federalism or feudalism as a justification. Take U.S. states for example, post-Baker v. Carr (369 U.S. 186)*: one state (Nebraska) has abolished its upper house, while the rest just plod along with an upper house that's smaller but otherwise elected on the same basis of representation (single member districts, first-past-the-post) as the lower house. While this arrangement does preserve the check of requiring both bodies to agree, it's not clear how much of a check this is as a practical matter (free grad student paper idea: compare the rate of passage of legislation in the Nebraska legislature to a bicameral state).

It seems to me that proportional representation (either pure PR, or the “top-off” form used in Britain's subnational legislatures that still allows some districts) is the ideal solution for making upper houses more relevant: it also has the bonus (if you go for pure PR) of not requiring redistricting fights. Even regional PR might be a good idea — states like Mississippi and Tennessee that have notable sub-state regions (the three Supreme Court districts of Mississippi and Tennessee's Grand Divisions) could use them as the basis for regional lists, apportioning the seats by population.

The downside is that it would probably lead to more partisan state legislatures, so PR Senates may only be desirable in states that already have strongly partisan legislatures — so Tennessee would probably be a reasonable case, while Mississippi may not be.

Previous discussion here.

* Baker v. Carr and its successors invalidated the apportionment of legislative chambers in the United States on any basis other than population under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, with the sole exception of the U.S. Senate (whose apportionment is specified in the Constitution in a particularly airtight fashion).