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Unicameral Legislature: Good Or Bad?

By Carlos Romero Barcelo

August 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the waste of time and money in our Legislature. The solution that is almost immediately suggested by politicians and so-called political experts is to eliminate one of the two chambers. They assume the elimination of one chamber will automatically make the Legislature more efficient and the reduction in the number of legislators will also significantly reduce expenditures.

Little attention or discussion is dedicated to analyzing the historical reasons for having two chambers. As usual, they think new laws and regulations can produce the much-needed reforms. The problems in our Legislature aren’t due to its form but to the poor quality of a large number of our legislators. Only by electing more-intelligent, better-prepared, and more-responsible legislators can we achieve meaningful reform.

Our democratic system in the U.S., of which Puerto Rico is part, is based on the republican form of government, as opposed to the parliamentary form of government. In the parliamentary form of democracy, the parliament is supreme and the prime minister and all ministers of the executive branch are duly elected members of the parliament. In the parliamentary system, the executive and legislative branches function together, not separately. No court in Great Britain can declare any law passed by Parliament to be unconstitutional.

In a democracy based on the republican form of government, the separation of the three basic powers of government is all-important. The powers of the executive branch are limited by the powers granted to the other two branches. The powers granted to Congress by our Constitution and the powers granted to the executive complement and limit each other. The third branch of government, the judiciary, interprets and orders the enforcement of the laws and can decide whether laws passed by Congress and signed by the executive are valid. The framers of our Constitution believed these checks and balances to be very important for protecting the rights of individual citizens and minority groups from discrimination and oppression by the majority.

When the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, there was a lot of discussion regarding whether we should have a one-chamber legislature or a two-chamber legislature. The prevailing argument in favor of a bicameral legislature had to do with the protection of minorities which, in this case, were the states with smaller populations. The final decision was to establish a Congress with two chambers. The House of Representatives would be composed of elected representatives from the states in proportion to the population of each state. In the Senate, all states would have two senators with equal power, regardless of population.

This structure would allow proposed laws to be discussed in a forum, the House of Representatives, where the states are represented in proportion to their population. This was, however, perceived to be unacceptable to smaller states, which would be outnumbered by the representatives from the most populous states. The Senate was proposed and adopted to provide a forum where the smaller states would have more influence to protect their interests–in other words, a second chance to discuss and even block objectionable laws. It was also an additional opportunity to improve proposed legislation.

Another strong argument against having a unicameral legislature was that it would give Congress too much power. The president of that unicameral legislature would have the power not only to approve laws for raising revenues and to authorize and determine how government would spend its funds, but also to approve or block cabinet appointments as well as other important appointments.

If we were to establish in Puerto Rico a unicameral legislature with all the powers that both chambers now have separately, the president of that legislative body would be much more powerful than the governor–without bearing the responsibilities to carry out the duties of government and to implement the public policy and programs approved and enacted by the legislature. The responsibility would lie on the shoulders of the executive, who would then be subject to strong control by the legislature. It would be a monumental change in our system of government–and a highly undesirable one.

Beyond the excessive power that would be vested in such a legislative body, a unicameral legislature would offer much less protection to the interests and rights of individual citizens and minority groups. Such a system would allow the majority to carry out its wishes with substantially less opportunity to debate, to eliminate undesirable bills, and to amend the mistakes and errors in proposed laws.

There have been innumerable times since our bicameral legislature was established by the Jones Act in 1917 that proposed laws have been stopped or substantially amended and improved by the second chamber. A second look is most always beneficial when a controversial bill is under consideration.

In a unicameral legislature, the power of the governor to implement his or her program and to appoint the candidates whom he or she determines best for the position would be severely impaired, and petty partisan politics would play a much larger role in any government process. Of the three government powers, the legislative branch has traditionally been the most motivated by partisan politics.

The opportunity to stop an oppressive and discriminatory law or an otherwise undesirable legislative proposal would be significantly reduced, to the prejudice of the people of Puerto Rico. The most important elected position in Puerto Rico, and the most powerful political position, would then not be the governor’s but that of the president of the unicameral legislature.

Not only would a unicameral legislature give the elected majority more power to abuse and discriminate against individual citizens and opposing minority groups, but to think legislators would spend less money because they are fewer in number is, to say the least, naive. The more power a group of incompetent and arrogant politicians has, the more money it will spend.

If a unicameral legislature is decided upon, the Capitol wouldn’t be reduced in size, and everyone can rest assured there would be no empty offices or spaces in the building just because one chamber has been eliminated. On the contrary, the legislators would argue they now have almost twice as much to do than they had before and, as a result, would approve higher salaries for themselves and for their assistants and other staff. They would also increase the number of assistants, counselors, advisers, aides, and other staff.

The system of checks and balances is basic to our republican form of government and to our form of democracy. As foreseen by the framers of our Constitution, our republican form of government is stronger because of the separation of powers and the checks and balances that exist in our system.

In the past three and a half years, we have been trampled on by an administration that has persecuted and discriminated against all its opposition, led by a governor who has used and abused all the powers granted to her to achieve her personal goals and purposes, regardless of the means. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had also had a unicameral legislature where Antonio Fas Alzamora or Carlos Vizcarrondo were president? Do you still think a unicameral legislature would be good for the people of Puerto Rico? You be the judge.

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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