The challenges of studying bicameralism and the legislative process: reflections from the Rome workshop ‘Bicameralism and Law-making in the UK and Italy’

u8TSxoiJ_400x400 (1)On 11 and 12 June 2018 the Constitution Unit co-hosted two workshops with Rome LUISS university, the second of which was on ‘Bicameralism and the legislative process in the UK and Italy’. In this post Roberta Damiani summarises some of the themes from the day, and what conclusions can be drawn for those researching the work and influence of parliaments.

Studying the legislative process is not an easy task, and it becomes even more complex when done through the lens of bicameralism. Difficulties include the definitional issue of what constitutes influence on legislation, and the challenges of accurately reconstructing how two chambers of parliament work in practice and interact with each other. In the second day of events organised jointly by the Constitution Unit and LUISS University a well-attended workshop, held on June 12th in the Sala della Lupa in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, explored how to tackle this subject from both a methodological and a substantive point of view. Here I draw on some of the points raised during the workshop, in an attempt to stimulate debate on how to approach such topics in future work.

The comparative literature often attempts to rank national parliaments according to their policy-making powers. Usually, these stop at the formal powers that a legislature has – for instance, to introduce bills and to amend government legislation. Examples are the Parliamentary Powers Index compiled by Fish and Kroenig, and its weighted version proposed by Chernykh, Doyle and Power in 2016. These comparative studies can be very useful to have a broad overview of how formal legislative powers vary from one country to another. However, they also start to highlight some challenges of studying legislatures: when one moves down to the level of the individual country, reconstructing what actually goes on in a certain parliament tends to be much more complicated.

The case of the UK exemplifies this very well. Westminster is usually portrayed as a weak parliament: on the surface, the government dominates the legislative process. However, the recent book by Meg Russell and Daniel Gover shows that parliament’s influence is much deeper than usually assumed. As Meg Russell described during the opening session of the Rome event, the authors not only carried out a very careful tracking of all amendments (over 4000) to 12 government bills, but also looked at other types of influence that different actors, such as select committees and government backbenchers, can have on legislation. They identify six ‘faces of parliamentary power’, which include ‘anticipated reactions’, agenda setting, and exposure – showing that influence can take more subtle forms than usually assumed (a summary of the book’s findings can be found here).

These findings challenge the conventional wisdom on Westminster. Methodologically, this type of in-depth research requires time and a deep knowledge of the system (something which comparative researchers have to sacrifice), as well as a nuanced approach to the study of policy-making.

To some extent, the case of the Italian system shows the opposite pattern. It is formally classified as very powerful (third in the world in the aforementioned Fish and Kroeing index). One of the indicators often mentioned in support of this is the high percentage of private members’ bills approved compared to other Western European countries, as pointed out by Giuseppe Di Palma in his  seminal work of the 1970s. But Di Palma went beyond this and, by coding for policy substantiveness of the bills, revealed that in fact that most approved bills were ‘micro-sectional’: they related to unimportant policy matters (the term coined in Italian is ‘leggine’, ‘little laws’). Is a parliament that passes mostly ‘little laws’ really a powerful one?

Moreover, Italian governments have two main prerogative instruments to force their legislation through parliament: decrees (fast-tracked bills enacted by the government on, allegedly, ‘urgent’ matters) and confidence votes (which, if requested on a bill, signal that losing the vote would lead to the government’s resignation). No Italian government has shied away from using either of them. One of the speakers at the event, Giovanni Rizzoni from the Osservatorio sulla Legislazione in the Chamber of Deputies, presented its latest report analysing the most recent trends on legislation in Italy. This shows that the percentage of bills initiated by the government is much higher than that for private members’ bills, and that 87% (56% when excluding the ratifications of international treaties) of government bills are approved very speedily – i.e. with only one reading in each chamber. Nevertheless, Rizzoni suggested that parliament does have an important role, as it scrutinises all bills in depth, including decrees, and often amends government bills extensively. Hence, in line with Russell and Gover’s findings, it is interpreting the data is not a straightforward exercise, and further analysis is needed to make sense of the numbers.

Moreover, when studying a bicameral system, ignoring the second chamber essentially means missing half of the story. Political science has neglected second chambers for a long time, partially because, as discussed on the first day of workshops, there has never been a consensus over what a second chamber should look like and how it should operate. In the UK case, very often the House of Lords is dismissed as a weak second chamber, but as demonstrated by Meg Russell’s work, ultimately the government very often concedes to changes suggested by the Lords.

Paradoxically, and again at the opposite end of the spectrum, the case of Italy shows that even a formally powerful second chamber is often ignored. There is an underlying assumption in the literature about the Italian parliament that, because of its peculiar form of bicameralism (known as ‘perfect’ bicameralism), the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are simply duplicates of each other. This is the primary reason why there is a remarkable lack of empirical studies about the performance of the Italian bicameral system, with a clear majority only looking at the Chamber of Deputies. The latter is usually given preference by scholars because it is seen as more political, being the chamber in which historically the Prime Minister and most ministers sat. In short, Italian bicameralism was simply seen as too ‘redundant’ to matter.

But was this really the case? There remains a gap, with most of the existing studies of the Senate belonging to the fields of historical and constitutional law research, without much empirical analysis in the fashion of international political science.

Moreover, Italian bicameralism has undergone significant changes in recent years, following the 2005 electoral reform. For most of the post-war period, the partisan composition of the two chambers of parliament was virtually identical, because the electoral law for both was very similar. This changed drastically in 2005, when a plurality bonus-adjusted PR system was introduced. While automatically giving a majority of seats to the first national party/coalition in the Chamber of Deputies, this system allocated the Senate plurality bonus on a regional level, hence not guaranteeing a majority there. In 2006, the Prodi government only had a majority of two in the Senate; in 2013, after the national debut of the Five Star Movement (M5S), the only way to form a government with a Senate majority was a grand coalition.

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In each graph, the top arc represents the Chamber and the bottom arc represents the Senate.

(Graphs compiled by the author, data from Ministero dell’Interno 2013)

Hence, with the increase in partisan incongruence, assumptions of redundancy of Italian bicameralism are no longer realistic. High incongruence made having a majority in the Senate, and hence forming a government, harder. In turn, the composition of governments affects how the law-making process plays out.

Francesco Zucchini and Andrea Pedrazzani’s quantitative work, presented during the workshop, seeks to test how incongruence affects some legislative dynamics. They use power indices measuring bicameral incongruence as the independent variable to test its effect on what they call ‘useless approvals’ – the number of bills that are officially approved by one chamber but not by the other, which therefore never become law. They find that incongruence is positively correlated with ‘useless approvals’, at least for private members’ bills, while government bills are generally much more likely to secure bicameral support. But the latter could potentially be the case because the government is using its prerogative instruments (e.g. decrees and confidence votes) to ensure that there is final approval. If the government wants to avoid running into trouble when passing its bills, we might expect it to deploy these procedures more frequently during periods of partisan incongruence between the chambers. These are some of the indicators that I will look at in my PhD research.

These kinds of quantitative indicators are an excellent starting point to get an overview of how legislative dynamics work in a parliament. However, if one is aiming for in-depth knowledge, complementing quantitative analysis with analysis that is more qualitative – for example on a small number of case studies – seems a very promising approach. This allows the context and the role of each actor involved to be taken into account. Russell and Gover’s book uses such a mixed methods approach to capture more subtle dynamics, and could inspire analysis in other contexts. Such methods include detailed amendment analysis to see who is having policy influence. Interviews are also essential. As the work of both the Constitution Unit and LUISS Centre for Parliamentary Studies show, it is important to consult insiders and practitioners of the institution under study, since quite a lot of the legislative process is not in fact captured on the public record. Particularly when the focus is on bicameralism, such an in-depth approach seems very suitable, as it better allows us to reconstruct all stages of the process and how the chambers interact and cooperate.

Therefore, mixed-methods approaches appear very promising for the study of subjects such as the legislative process and bicameralism. The successful events in Rome highlighted how fruitful and welcome future research in these areas would be.

This is the final piece in a series of four blogposts, the previous of which related to the workshop on 11 June on ‘The challenges of reforming upper houses in the UK and Italy’. The first post in the series, by Unit Director Meg Russell reviewed why reforming upper chambers is so difficult; the second post, by Professor Carlo Fusaro  discussed the Italian case, including the failure of the latest Senate reform attempt in 2016; the third post, by Roberta Damiani, summarised the contributions of other speakers at this opening workshop.

About the author

Roberta Damiani is a PhD candidate at the Constitution Unit. Her research is focused on the role of the Senate in the Italian legislative process.

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