The U.S. seems to be the only western democracy where the upper chamber still seems to be co-equal to the lower chamber. In Britain, for example, the House of Lords is essentially close to useless, and so is the Canadian Senate.

Yet, the US Senate appears to be a co-equal to the House of Representatives.

Is there a reason why, unlike the other liberal democracies, the US Senate has not observed a decline in roles and responsibilities?

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    This looks like an interesting question, but it had some personal opinions that I have removed. You may revert them, but those are considered offtopic on Politics.SE. Also, it would be nice to include at least one reference to back up the claim in the title, especially for non-US members / less familiar with US politics.
    – Alexei
    Mar 17, 2019 at 9:45
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    The Japanese House of Councillors, the German Bundesrat, the Indian Rajya Sabha, the Australian Senate, and the Brazilian Federal Senate would be just some that would disagree with the entire premise of this question.
    – JdeBP
    Mar 17, 2019 at 10:42
  • It would be useful for an answer to address the different functions of the two chambers in the USA, UK and Canada. I'm not sure exactly what co-equal means in the sense it is used here Mar 17, 2019 at 13:13
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    @DaveGremlin: In the US sense, the Senate is "co-equal" because it has the ability to initiate, amend, and block legislation in exactly the same way as the House, with the singular exception of originating revenue bills (unlike the House of Lords in the UK, whose abilities are much more constrained relative to the House of Commons).
    – Kevin
    Mar 17, 2019 at 19:44

6 Answers 6


In a certain sense, America's founding fathers were terribly afraid of democracy, and went through great pains to mollify it with an extremely conservative system of government that deemphasized sheer population numbers. The people as a whole were feared for being fickle and unpredictable. The founding fathers did not want the federal government and country as a whole to change as a result of the current fads and emotional impulses. The House of Representatives, being directly elected by the people and in proportion to the number of people, would reflect that destabilizing fickleness.

The Senate, on the other hand, was initially designed to have its membership appointed by the State legislatures, not elected by the people. These were meant to be reasoned statesmen, who, combined with their much longer 6-year terms, could stand above the ephemeral fracas of the people and act in the greater and long-term interests of the states and the country as a whole. The fickle, fast-changing House was balanced by the slow and sartorial Senate. The same basic idea was used to rationalize the election of the President via Electors, rather than a direct, democratic vote by the people: the founders envisioned the electors as principled and intelligent men of strong moral fiber who could prevent the unfettered "will of the people" from electing a demagogue who gets by on vitriol and celebrity rather than an actual capacity to govern. Reality ultimately was much different, and electors these days are little more than puppets who are frequently penalized if they depart from the popular vote results, no matter the reason.

The States were also much more individualized, independent, and protective back then. None of them wanted to have the affairs of the entire country dictated by a small number of heavily populated states, whose affairs and priorities may be radically different.

As such the founders of the USA in fact endowed the Senate with substantially more power than the House had: they would confirm judges, cabinet members, etc. The only power the House has that the Senate does not is in the Origination Clause, requiring tax legislation to initiate in the House.

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    I think this explanation is a little too teleological. It describes some of the post-hoc justifications for the Senate, but the Senate wasn't create because the founders believed these reasons justified a Senate. It was created to ensure the smaller states would sign onto the Constitution. In other words, none of this mattered when the Constitution was being created. It's justification after the fact.
    – Publius
    Mar 21, 2019 at 6:34
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    This interesting answer would benefit from sources and quotes from the founding fathers acknowledging their purpose in creating the Senate the way they did.
    – Evargalo
    Mar 21, 2019 at 8:39
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    @Avi Your claims are specifically refuted in a reading of the documents of the time, either by James Wilson or Federalist 62. Federalist 62 is the ideal citation for this answer. Mar 21, 2019 at 12:17
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    Federalist 62 is pretty much where I'm getting this from. The Federalist Papers were post-hoc justifications, and 62 specifically admitted it was a post-hoc justification, acknowledging that the Senate was added to the Constitution out of political necessity.
    – Publius
    Mar 22, 2019 at 5:30
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    @Avi I don't see it anywhere specifically admitting such a thing. It does recognize that the Senate was politically necessary to address the concerns of smaller states. But whether the various arguments it provides concerning the expected utility and benefits of the Senate were then tacked on afterwards, or were already present in the discussions that led to it, is not clear. And insofar as the Federalist papers can be thought of as propaganda for adopting the constitution, any post-hoc justifications of the writers become the express rationale of the adopting legislatures, anyway. Mar 22, 2019 at 6:30

The Senate in the USA is an elected body. It can therefore claim a mandate from the electorate.

The House of Lords and the Canadian Senate are (mostly) appointed. The members of these houses don't have a direct mandate from the electorate. Moreover, there are deliberate constitutional acts to prevent the unelected chamber from overruling the elected on. It was the ability of the lower house to appoint members to the upper that allowed the lower house to force the constitutional changes that restricted the powers of the upper house. In the UK, in 1911, the then Prime Minister threatened to create hundreds of new Lords if the existing Lords blocked the Parliament Act which restricted the powers of the Upper Chamber.

In the case of the US senate, the senators have a direct mandate from the electorate, and as the lower house can't appoint senators, the House of Representatives can't pass constitutional changes that would limit the powers of the Senate by simply appointing hundreds of Senators, as constitutional changes need the approval of the Senate and the States.

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    It's probably worth adding to this that the Senate used to be appointed by the state governments, but that was changed to be directly elected with the 17th amendment in 1913, for similar reasons.
    – Bobson
    Mar 17, 2019 at 15:30
  • @Bobson Senators were chosen by their state legislatures. I suppose using "appointed by the state governments" to refer to this isn't exactly incorrect, but it somehow seems to imply an even less democratic process than the one that is specified in the constitution.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2019 at 20:46
  • @phoog the Senate is not designed to be democratic. The House of Reps is. The Senate's responsibility is closer aligned to being states' embassadors to the Fed govt. It's why it is the Senate that confirms judges and ratifies treaties.
    – wrod
    Dec 14, 2023 at 14:10

The US is a federation of States; the purpose of the Senate is to maintain the balance of power between less populous and more populous states; as this purpose still exists so too its power does.

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    It may be worth pointing out that while this is true, the Framers were dealing with a ratio of about 11:1 for the most populous state to the least, while now the small state has the same equal power, but the ratio is 66:1. The Senate has gotten significantly less democratic over time, possibly pushing the boundaries of what the Framers had conceived or intended.
    – David Rice
    Mar 18, 2019 at 14:21
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    @DavidRice since the whole point was to fix an imbalance of 11:1, it is doubly true that an imbalance of 66:1 would have needed a senate at the time - don't forget this was a way to get those tiny states into the union. They may not have personally liked making a state-based senate for the reason you outline, but it was done intentionally
    – user19831
    Mar 18, 2019 at 14:23
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    @DavidRice do you have any evidence supporting the assertion that a 66:1 population ratio is beyond the intentions of the framers, or of any subset of them? Did any of them actually express intentions with regard to population ratios? Also, don't forget that the framers comprised people from both small and large states, who together agreed on the Connecticut compromise. Had the compromise not succeeded, perhaps they would have been left with the status quo, in which every state had one vote in the unicameral congress. It wasn't so much the big states that were giving up, but the small ones.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2019 at 21:02
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    @phoog Do you have any evidence that they didn't care at all about the ratios? That they felt like it would've been fine to have a state of 100 people and a state of 10billion represented equally? Or maybe, just maybe, they were people - fumbling around without any historical guidance, doing their best, and they came up with something that would work for them in the moment but hoped that as facts changed, the nation would amend their imperfect agreements to something that worked better with newer facts?
    – David Rice
    Mar 25, 2019 at 14:58
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    @DavidRice I have no evidence regarding their opinions concerning ratios, but you are the one making the assertion. I don't doubt that they "came up with something that would work for them in the moment," but that's not the same as saying that any particular fact existing today is beyond their intentions. Even if there is a threshold that reflects the limits of their intentions, it was surely not the same for everyone, and it was not tested by the democratic process. So we're left with Article V. What matters is not whether the framers would do something different today, but whether we would.
    – phoog
    Mar 25, 2019 at 20:37

Another factor in addition to those already mentioned is that the U.S. has a strong Presidency, rather than a parliamentary system.

In a parliamentary system, you need to have a legislatively elected Prime Minister and cabinet to be chosen by and accountable to a legislature and it is much less natural to make a prime minister and cabinet (who exercise basically all real power in a parliamentary system) accountable to one legislative chamber rather than two. This tends to make the chamber(s) without a say in choosing a Prime Minister atrophy in power.

In a strong Presidential system, in contrast, the operation of the executive branch doesn't require strong legislative involvement or support, so, a bicameral legislative process is more feasible. A deadlock on any given important bill won't cause the day to day functioning of the entire government to cease. So it isn't as important functionally to make one chamber dominant and the other(s) subordinate.

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    A small style edit -- too many "functions" -- please reverse it if you disagree.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2019 at 21:06

The US Constitution sets out the specific roles and responsibilities of the US Senate, and those remain important.

Your two examples, the UK House of Lords and the Canadian Senate, are both composed of people appointed by the executive arm of government, and thus lack democratic legitimacy.

In the UK, this is the main cause of the decline of the Lords. The Lords remains somewhat useful, because the lack of reporting on it in the media discourages political posturing, and some of the people appointed to it have more expertise in useful fields than any professional politician. However, it is vastly less significant than the US Senate.

In Canada, there was a deliberate decision at the time of Confederation in 1867 to create a less powerful house to provide review and advice, and avoid the possibility of deadlock between two equally powerful houses. Making it appointed means that it can't acquire democratic legitimacy. Again, it is less significant than the US Senate, but that means it's working as designed.

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    It's worth pointing out that at Canadian confederation it was deliberately chosen to create an appointed senate, and that at least part of the reason was to avoid having two chambers with equal mandates and thus the possibility of deadlock between them. Mar 17, 2019 at 15:45
  • @DJClayworth: Thanks, that's let me improve the answer significantly. Mar 17, 2019 at 16:29
  • @DJClayworth was the Canadian decision informed by observation of US politics? Were there notorious deadlocks in the US congress before 1867?
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2019 at 21:04
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    @phoog I believe the decision was informed by observation of US politics, but also of British politics where I believe the two houses had been deadlocked before it was decided that the Commons could override the Lords. I couldn't point to specific instances of deadlock in the US legislature. Mar 22, 2019 at 21:14

1) Because it was set up that way in the US Constitution, so changing it would require amending the Constitution, which no one seems to want to do.

2) The system works, and arguably works as well or better than those effectively unicameral systems. If it ain't broke, why fix it? (Note that almost all US states also have bicameral legislatures.)

3) The US is not a "liberal democracy", it's a republic.

PS: I think a few comments are not quite what I meant by there being a difference between the liberal democracies of Europe, and the US "republican form of government". It seems obvious to me that the framers of the US Constitution were trying to restrict the powers of government while allowing popular/democratic input - the "checks and balances" so often discussed. One of those checks is the bicameral legislature, originally chosen by different methods, both houses of which needed to agree to pass legislation.

By contrast, the European liberal democracies seem to be constructed to allow unlimited power to the government, but stamp its acts with the imprimatur of democratic support.

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    "Liberal democracy" is the form of government advocated by classical liberals, and the US was the prototypical example. The term has little to do with the current meanings of "liberal" and "democracy" in American political discourse. Mar 18, 2019 at 1:51
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    @Jouni Sirén: I understand your point, but I don't think the US is, constitutionally, a liberal democracy in either sense of the word.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 18, 2019 at 5:25
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    "Liberal democracy" means the things people in the West often take for granted, like the rule of law, separation of powers, elected representatives, one vote per person, civil liberties, and property rights. Things the US has in common with some monarchies like Netherlands and the UK, but which separate it from certain republics like North Korea and the former USSR. Mar 18, 2019 at 6:27
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    @jounisiren In discussion of US political history, "Republic" means something like "representative democracy", and not just "doesn't have a king" like it does in other contexts. If you look at documents written by US founders, you'll see "republic" contrasted with "democracy" quite often in just the way jamesqf has.
    – Deolater
    Mar 18, 2019 at 13:10
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    @Deolater We are not having this discussion in that context, because the term "liberal democracy" was already used in the title. (Anyway, I guess that "republic" means roughly the same in that context as "liberal democracy" in an European context.) Mar 18, 2019 at 18:10

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