The Legislature: Origin, Types, Functions and Importance


The Legislature: Origin, Types, Functions and Importance

The legislature is perhaps the most important organ of government in the sense that no society can exist without law. It is also believed that an elected legislature is a major distinguishing feature between a democratic and a military government since all forms of government does lawmaking.

This post examines the place and role of the legislature as a major institution of government.

It also discusses the different types of legislature and the reasons why some countries prefer one to the other.


Table of content

By the end of this article, you will be able to:

1. Discuss the origin and development of the legislative arm of government

2. Examine the functions of the legislature in the process of governance

3. Explain the reasons why countries operate different legislative structures

Read On: Types of Government with Examples

Origin of the Legislature

As the earliest organ of government, the history of the legislature can be traced to the classical days of the Greece and the Roman Empire.

Both countries had legislative bodies. 

Indeed, the idea of the senate as the upper house had its origin in Rome.  The Roman’s Senate was exclusively composed of the leading aristocrats in the country and thus, members were proudly referred to as the “Fathers of Rome”.

The term senate has since struck and many have copied it into their constitutional framework, as the upper house. The equivalent of the senate in the British system is the House of Lords, which is the oldest second chamber in the modern world, and the largest.

To capture the interest of the vast majority of the citizenry, Rome also created the popular assemblies. This is the precursor of the modern-day representative legislature, which has increasingly assumed more prominence since it conforms to the democratic principle of popular sovereignty or the mandate theory of representation.

The struggle between the then pliant or rubber-stamp parliament and the absolute monarchy, popularly known as the Puritan “Revolt” which later culminated in what is today known in Britain as the concept of parliamentary supremacy is a major event in the evolution of today’s legislature.

It was meant to underscore the fact that the legislature should occupy a pre-eminent position in its relationship with the executive. Since then, other countries have accepted the legislative institution as the bedrock of democracy.


Types of the Legislature

There are two types of the legislature: the unicameral and the bicameral legislatures.

1. Unicameral Legislature

A unicameral legislature refers to a legislature which consists of one chamber or house. Countries with unicameral governments include Armenia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Sweden, among others. Unicameral systems became more popular during the 20th century and some countries, including Greece, New Zealand, and Peru, switched from a bicameral to a unicameral system.


Merits of Unicameral Legislature

a. A Unicameral legislature is less expensive to run. The salaries and allowances that would have been paid to the members of the second chamber can be easily spent on other facilities and infrastructures.

b. The passage of bill can also be done without delays that are associated with another round of scrutiny in the second chamber. This has the advantage of making government business easier, less cumbersome as well as making the response of the government to challenges quicker, especially in situations of emergency.

c. In a unicameral legislature, the state is spared of the internal rivalry and conflict that are associated with a bicameral structure where the two houses often disagree on supremacy claims. This was witnessed in Nigeria when the Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Representatives on Constitutional Amendments openly disagreed over which of the two houses would produce the chairman.


Demerits of Unicameral Legislature

a. It is possible in a unicameral legislature for hasty laws to be passed since the opportunity of a second look by the other chamber is not available.

b. Since the second chamber is usually composed of mature, seasoned and distinguished citizens in a country, a country operating a unicameral legislature is denied the benefit of wisdom, experience and partisan detachment that are usually associated with people who had previously served the country in many capacities in the past, and who see service at the upper chamber as a unique recognition of their abilities and a call to higher national service.

c. A unicameral structure is not suitable for large and heterogeneous federal states like the United States of America and Nigeria, where the second chamber is usually designed to allay the fears of the minorities and promote their interests.

2. Bicameral Legislature

A bicameral legislature is a reference to a government with two legislative houses or chambers. Countries with the bicameral legislature are: the United States (U.S.), Britain, Nigeria etc.

In Nigeria, the two legislative houses are: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate consists of 107 senators elected based on three Senators to represent each of the country’s thirty-six states and one senator to represent Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

There are also 360 members in the nation’s House of Representatives elected based on population, like its equivalent in the U.S.A. The equal representation in the U.S. and Nigerian Senate seeks to balance bigness and smallness, majority rule and majority rules, centripetal and centrifugal forces that are typical of most federal systems.

The two legislative houses of the British Parliament are the Upper House (the House of Lords), which has about 900 members, and Lower House (the House of Commons), which is composed of 650 elected members.


Merits of a Bicameral Legislature

a. The bicameral legislature has the advantage of wider representation, including those of minorities and special interests.

It enables the countries operating it to cope with, and manage the pull of centrifugal forces.

b. The second chamber can also help in checking hasty legislation since bills emanating from the first chamber can always go to the second for fresh considerations.

c. Bicameralism can also guard against the potential despotism of a single chamber. A second chamber, therefore, serves as a guarantee of liberty and safeguard against legislative tyranny of a single house.


Demerits of Bicameral Legislature

a. A two-chamber legislature is very expensive to operate. Financial outlay.

The second chamber is a duplication of effort, and a waste of material, financial and human resources.

b. The establishment of two legislative houses can also create conditions for avoidable conflict between the two chambers. This conflict usually emanates during the passage of bills, and which under the law must involve the two houses.

c. It is also possible in countries where membership of the second chamber is not by election for the executive to convert it to an avenue for political patronage. This was the case in Nigeria in the First Republic.

Read On: Meaning and Functions of Government


Functions of the Legislature

Basically, the legislature performs the following functions:

1. Law-Making

The primary function of the legislature is to make laws for the good and well-being of the people as well as for the order and security of the state. Such laws are made in accordance with the state’s constitution and in line with the standing laws and procedure that the assembly has stipulated.

2. Representative Function

Legislature as a body composed of elected representatives of the people. Individual members of the legislature in a democracy are elected to represent their constituencies. They are thus expected to visit and consult their constituencies regularly to feel their pulse for better representation.

3. Deliberative Function

Essentially, the legislature is an arena for keen deliberations; and for this reason, it has been correctly described as a deliberative body. It deliberates on a wide range of issues bordering on welfare, economy, security, among others.

4. Approval of Annual Budgets

In most countries, the legislature is always known to possess what is called the power of the purse. This implies that the executive cannot legally make any spending without the approval of the legislature. For this reason, the law requires the executive to lay before the legislature its annual spending proposals and its sectorial break down for consideration, vetting and possible approval. It is through this power that the legislature,

on behalf of the electorate, can hold the government and its officials accountable either for misuse of public funds.

5. Confirmation of Nominations made by the Executive

Under the constitution, the executive can only make nominations to major government positions as ministers, judges and ambassadors. Until these nominees are screened and confirmed by the legislature they remain only designates into positions. They can be deemed to have been validly appointed only after the approval of the legislature.

6. Oversight Functions

It is also the responsibility of the legislature (usually through a standing committee) to conduct investigations into the activities of government ministries, departments and agencies to overseeing, monitor and if need be, scrutinize the accounts and documents of government agencies in relation to the enabling legislation. A standing committee can also organize public hearings or summon government officials to clarify certain issues or defend decisions already made or proposals under consideration by the agency concerned.

7. Impeachment of the Executive

The legislature also reserves the power to invoke the extreme step of censoring and impeaching the President or vice-president in a presidential system or forcing the resignation of a Prime Minister and the government he presides over if the parliament passes a vote of no confidence on it.

In the United States, President Richard Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974, to escape his impeachment the process, which had already commenced in the congress. At the state level, the House of Assembly can also remove a Governor or Deputy Governor from office.

8. Ratification of Treaties/Agreements

The constitution of most countries stipulates that for a treaty or agreement between one country and another to have a full force of the law, and have a binding effect on the peoples of both countries, it must be ratified by the legislature.

9. Constitutional Amendments

Another important function of the legislature is the power to amend the nation’s constitution. It may modify sections of the constitution or replace it in its entirety.

In a federal system, this power is shared between the inclusive government and the government of the component states. Under the Nigerian constitution, a bill for the amendment of the constitution must receive the support of two-thirds of members of both houses of the National assembly as well as 24 out of the 36 of the states in the country.

Without meeting these stringent requirements, the bill cannot receive presidential assent.


Importance of the Legislature

From what we have discussed so far, it is obvious that the legislature is a very important organ of government.

Indeed, in any reference to democratic governance, whether parliamentary or presidential, the organ that captures the mind of many citizens as a symbol of democracy is the legislature.

The Legislative assembly is the place where the public sees democracy in action, in form of debates and consideration of motions and passage of resolutions and bills.

Indeed, the closest politician to the voter is the representative of his constituency in the legislature, like the councilor in a local government council.


Conclusion on the Legislature: Origin, Types, Functions and Importance

The legislature is an important organ of government. In fact, it is the distinctive mark of both democracy and a state’s sovereignty.

However, over time in many countries, and for different reasons, the legislature is losing ground to the executive. This problem is more acute in emerging democracies where the legislators are still struggling to win their independence from the over-bearing influence of the executives.

This article has succinctly examined the origin, types, functions and importance of the legislature. We saw that the history of the legislature is traceable to the classical days of the Greece and Roman Empire and that there are two types of the legislature: the unicameral and the bicameral legislatures, with peculiar attributes.

The article has equally identified lawmaking, representation and oversight functions, among others as the basic functions of the legislature.

It is the performance of these functions that distinguish the legislature as the symbol of democracy.

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