The U.S. Constitution, which served as a conceptual model when the Constituent Assembly (1952) wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, establishes that the national parliament, which is called the Congress in the United States, would be a bicameral body representing the country’s citizens on the basis of two criteria: one territorial and one based on population. The upper house, the Senate, was organized on the basis of two representatives for each territory (state), regardless of the number of residents each state had. And the lower house, the House of Representatives, had members elected from districts based on population, with each district having a similar number of residents. Therefore, the states with larger populations would have more representatives than those with fewer residents. In other words, each representative in the House of Representatives would represent the same number of people.
The reason that representation based on territory (per state) was considered important arose from the fact that before gaining independence from Britain, each of the thirteen colonies had matured with its own internal social and economic structures and had particular idiosyncrasies that they did not necessarily share with the other states that opted to join with them to create a political union. For example, the prosperity of some of the colonies was based on trade, maritime and financial activities that they had developed while others depended mainly on agriculture and slave labor as their main economic activity. In other words, while parts of the new country had participated in the expansionary capitalism of the European Industrial Revolution, others remained rooted in pre-modern slavery practices. In addition to the economic, social and cultural differences, at the time of independence each colony had specific power groups based in their immediate surroundings that were privileged and powerful in their respective territories. Moving toward a political union, which by all means was an audacious experiment, would cause them to give up some of their sovereign powers, and this created doubts and mistrust among these powerful classes. The most prudent solution, therefore, was to ensure that the territories would retain a certain level of power within the central (federal) government structure. This political problem led to an intense debate among these leaders, between federalists and centralists, between those who thought that a federalist union should be created in which each state retained a wide range of political authority and those who supported a strong central government capable of creating common rules and ties that were mutually beneficial. The consensus among modern historians who have studied the evolution of the republic’s first years is that by the early 19th century, the feelings of loyalty to a particular territory were stronger than the national sentiment. The U.S. nationalism that is so well known today would not come until many decades later, after the Civil War, the creation of an overseas empire, the achievement of global hegemony (military, political and economic) and the ever greater reach of the federal bureaucracy into everyday life.
To illustrate this point, the first formula for a political union in the United States was a confederation (the Articles of Confederation), under which each state would retain broad powers, including the authority to maintain its own militia and issue its own currency. Later, this agreement was annulled and the Constitution that we know today was adopted. But the common mistrust maintained the concept of each state having the same representation in the Senate: two per state, regardless of size, population or wealth. It should also be remembered that under the original Constitution the members of the Senate were not elected by popular vote, but were designated by local legislatures. This measure was aimed at ensuring the power of local business interests. It was not changed until the Constitution was amended in the early 20th century to authorize election of senators by popular vote, to make the process more democratic.
But there was yet another mechanism that limited democratic electoral activity in exchange for more political control over state political groups. This was the Electoral College. In the United States, the president is not elected by popular vote, but rather by the Electoral College. Technically, the citizens authorize the electors of the college, who then choose one of the candidates. (There have been cases, such as the election of 2000, in which one candidate, Al Gore, won the majority of the popular vote but lost the presidency to another, George W. Bush, because he obtained more electoral votes.)
For all these reasons, the legislative branch in the U.S. political tradition is a bicameral system. Of the fifty states that currently make up the U.S. federation, only one (Nebraska) has a unicameral legislature. Given this tendency it is not surprising that when the Congress faced the task of establishing by law a civil government to administer its new colony in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, it approved the Foraker Act (1900), which created a bicameral Legislature (although the members of the upper house, which was called the Executive Council, were not elected but were appointed by the president of the United States).
Since the reason for dividing the legislature into two houses, one with territorial representation and the other based on population, was based on the supposition that there were territorial, cultural, social, economic and political differences that should be taken into account when considering and approving legislation, it is reasonable to wonder if a bicameral legislature is superfluous in a place that is homogenous, such as Puerto Rico, and where there are no formal territorial divisions except the municipalities. To justify the territorial representation, Puerto Rico was arbitrarily divided into eight senatorial districts, which do not exist as political, administrative or jurisdictional units.
The pertinent dialogue today should focus on the relative merit of bicameral and unicameral systems in terms of operational efficiency, institutional development, democratic (or authoritarian) practices and the consequences on the dynamics of power struggles and the internal procedures of political parties. We should also revisit the philosophical and historical value of the harmonic relationships that should exist between the local characteristics and political institutions when building an autonomous citizen experience.
Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.
This post is also available in: Español