Why We Need Larger Legislatures

Leiden, a.d. V Id. Aug. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,

A basic principle in constitutional design has long been separation of power, the idea that by introducing checks and balances in the political system no single actor or group can take over the country. As James Madison put it: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” While there are many theories on how this can be achieved, in general I think it is a principle that has proven its value over and over again. At the very least it would be stupid to do away with the checks and balances there are, if they have worked well so far. No harm, no foul! However, we may have in fact done exactly this in the last 30 or so years.

Both in Europe as well as the USA, and other democracies, legislatures function to monitor executives besides writing and ratifying laws. In the Netherlands they may be called Staten-Generaal and kabinet and in the USA Congress and President, but in all cases part of the task of the legislature is to ensure that the executive does not abuse its power and executes the policies and laws (at least nominally) laid down by the legislature. Even if parliamentary systems have a less clear division of power between the government and the members of parliament who support the government than in presidential systems, the fact that there are opposition parties still allows a debate which keeps the government sharp and which allows opposition parties to reach out to society by providing an alternative to the government.

However, in order to do all this legislatures need information. A lot of information. They need to read proposed laws (bills), and often they need to write bills or propose amendments to bills. They also need to receive information about how the government executes those laws, whether it does so efficiently, fairly, and without abusing its power. Yet, ironically, legislatures are quite dependent on governments to receive the information they need to monitor the government. In other words, even in order to find out whether the government has given all necessary and relevant information, a legislature needs to monitor the government.

But since 1950 laws have been getting more complicated, the size of most governments has ballooned as welfare states and regulation were expanded, and legislatures have to deal with a much more complex international environment,  in which international law added long and difficult treaties. Not only do they have to monitor the government in their own country, they also have to figure out what is going on in Brussels, in WTO negotiations, and multiple other international venues.

Meanwhile the size of legislatures and their staff often did not increase. This means legislatures got more and more work to do with as much manpower as before, while governments got more and more people to work for them. It has already been noted that this opens a door to lobbyists, as they are surprisingly selfless when it comes to providing information to legislators. Far worse even, it also allows governments to hide things from legislators and to act in ways that legislators cannot supervise. So, the increased length of laws, the larger size of governments, and the increasingly complex international environment may have led to a fundamental power disequilibrium between the principal, the legislature, and the agent, the executive.

In this light it is unfortunate that the Dutch government in 2012 proposed to reduce the size of the Tweede Kamer from 150 to 100 MP’s. Similarly, my cat has solemnly sworn not to eat baby birds, and the mice have signed a non-binding treaty in which they promise not to play while the cat is away. Rather, we should dramatically increase the staff of legislatures, both to protect ourselves against regulatory capture (when lobbyists take over policy making) and to protect ourselves against a government doing all sorts of stuff in Brussels (or in Washington) without legislatures having the capacity to monitor all that.

In the case of the Netherlands this would not create a bloated parliament by international standards. Political scientists have noted that the size of a legislature in relation to the size of the population follows the ‘cube root rule’. This rule states the relation between the size of the assembly and the population as: Size Assembly=Population (in millions)^(1/3). Although the technicalities do not matter that much here, we can see that Dutch parliament is quite small, in fact. The 150 MPs in the Tweede Kamer serve around 17.000.000 citizens, so there is one MP per 113333 citizens. Meanwhile, 17.000.000^(1/3)=257 MPs. In other words, it would not be strange to drastically increase the size of the Dutch lower house.

However, it does not end here. The increased complexity of laws and international treaties also means that the staff which supports the Dutch Tweede Kamer should expand accordingly. This both refers to the staff which supports individual members of parliament or parliamentary groups, but also the staff which supports the Tweede Kamer as a whole. The latter has 575 personnel, but they also do ICT, security and catering. It is surprisingly difficult to find out exactly how much assistance MPs receive on issues of legislative content. However, it seems to be the case that the personal assistance has only been adjusted for inflation since 1964, even though the environment the Tweede Kamer finds itself in has become much more complex.

In short, legislatures monitor governments. They work on behalf of the electorate to make sure that the government follows the electorate’s will (however defined). Many countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the USA and Israel could do with larger legislatures (although others, such as France, Germany and the UK, are doing fine). They have relatively small assemblies, which means they have less manpower to monitor the government. Another solution, at least as far as the Netherlands is concerned, would be to increase the size of the staff which assists legislators. In any case, more oversight on the government would not hurt. It would put legislatures on a more equal footing with governments, and it would make legislators less dependent on lobbyists for information (although input from NGOs and companies should always be part of policy making), as they have more time to gather independent information.

Bottom Line: Legislatures monitor executives. This is an essential component of democracy. We should have well funded staffs for legislatures, so they can process all the information they need to carry out this vital task, and larger legislatures to ensure legislators can process all the information they need.


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