Upper house

An upper house (sometimes known as a second chamber) is one of two chambers of a bicameral legislature, the other chamber being the lower house. Upper houses are known by a variety of titles, but the most common is senate. An upper house is usually distinct from the lower house in at least one of a number of ways. An upper house may:

  • Be less powerful than the lower house.
  • Consist of members selected in a manner other than by popular election.
  • Be intended to represent the states of a federation.
  • Consist of peers or nobles.
  • Have a smaller membership than the lower house.
  • Consist of members who serve longer terms than those of the lower house.
  • Consist of a membership elected in portions, rather than all at once.
  • Be considered to be a 'house of review'.


  • Often an upper house may only delay but not veto legislation adopted by the lower house. This arises from the notion of an upper house as an advisory or revising chamber. It is the role of a revising chamber to scrutinise legislation that may have been drafted over-hastily in the lower house, and to suggest amendments that the lower house may nevertheless reject if it wishes to. The British House of Lords is sometimes seen as having a special role of safeguarding the constitution and important civil liberties against ill-considered change. By delaying but not vetoing legislation, an upper house may nevertheless defeat legislation: by giving the lower house the opportunity to reconsider, by preventing it from having sufficient time for a bill in the legislative schedule, or simply by embarrassing the other chamber into abandoning an unpopular measure.
  • In many systems the upper house has restricted influence over money bills, such as the budget. Constitutions often stipulate that a money bill must originate in the lower house, or that the upper house may not block supply.

One exception to the principle of the upper house having less authority than the lower house may be the United States Senate. This is often referred to as the 'upper house' of the legislature but is in vital respects more powerful than the House of Representatives (the 'lower house').

Election or appointment

  • Many upper houses are not directly elected, but appointed: either by the head of government or in some other way. 'Appointment' is usually intended to produce a house of experts or otherwise distinguished citizens, who would not be returned in an election. Members of the Canadian Senate are appointed by the monarch on the direction of the prime minister. In contrast, the Irish Senate is indirectly elected from special panels, intended to represent different aspects of national life, such as labour, employers and culture.
  • In federations the upper house may consist of delegates who are indirectly elected by state governments, as is the case in the German Bundesrat and many other upper chambers. Alternatively, members of the upper house may be directly elected but apportioned among states in a manner which is not strictly proportionate to population. In the United States Senate members are directly elected but each state receives exactly two senators, regardless of its population. Prior to the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, all US senators were elected by the state legislatures.
  • Finally, seats in an upper house may be hereditary, as has historically been the case in chambers such as the British House of Lords and the Japanese House of Peers.


Many jurisdictions, such as Denmark, Sweden, Venezuela, New Zealand, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and New Brunswick, once possessed upper houses but abolished them, to adopt unicameral systems. Newfoundland had a Legislative Council prior to joining Canada, as did Ontario when it was Upper Canada. The Australian state of Queensland also once had a legislative council before abolishing it, but all other Australian states continue to have bicameral systems. Nebraska is the only state in the United States to have a unicameral legislature.

Titles of upper houses

See also

fr:Chambre haute ja:上院


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