The United States and Canada each have three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The legislature passes the laws. The executive branch administers the laws. The judicial branch enforces the laws.
The length of time the politicians meet each year varies, and many state legislators get paid very little. Texas legislators receive $600 per month, plus a per diem of $168. Montana legislators get $82 per day when in-session, plus $100 per day for expenses. In New Mexico, state legislators get paid nothing, collecting only $159 per day in expenses. Wyoming legislators receive $150 per day when in-session, and $109 for expenses. New Hampshire legislators receive $200 for a full two-year term, with no per diem. (You might as well call it nothing.)*
The U.S. system is set up so that right after state legislators pass new laws, they immediately head home to live and work within the constraints of those laws. It is then the responsibility of the executive branch of government, headed by an elected governor, to run the machinery of government. The people who pass the laws, and the people who run the government, are different.
In Canadian provinces, the legislative branch and the executive branch can become somewhat blurred because they’re both controlled by the same people. If a Premier and Cabinet respect the distinction between their responsibilities as legislators, and their responsibilities as government managers, the Canadian system works well.
But, when a Premier and Cabinet get the idea that first and foremost they are managers, rather than legislators, the fallout can be difficult because they’ll find it easy to pass laws that make their management jobs simpler, even if it means trampling the legitimate rights of ordinary people.
We mentioned that 49 of the 50 states have a bicameral legislature. There are many other places around the world where an elected bicameral legislature is the norm. In Australia, in New South Wales, the government website explains why Australians believe their elected bicameral legislature is far more effective than a single legislative assembly such as we have in Alberta.
Here’s what the Australians say about their bicameral legislature:
The basic rationale for having two parliamentary chambers is the need to avoid a concentration of power in a single body and the risk of abuse that entails. Dividing power between two legislative chambers of broadly equal status is a safeguard against a single chamber taking extreme or excessive measures which may lack broad community support.
A further rationale for having two chambers is to ensure that the Parliament can properly perform its role of holding the government to account, and checking or restraining the use of government power. In most instances, a single chamber is unlikely to be able to act as an effective restraint, as the majority of its members will be representatives of the government party who vote as the government dictates. A second chamber with broadly equal powers to the first provides a more effective check on government conduct. **
For More Information on the Distinction Between the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government, see:
The Relations of the Legislature to the Executive Power in Canada by George Wrong, University of Toronto, The American Political Science Review
The Role of the Legislature in a Democracy – project management and editing by the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS)
Canada’s System of Government (Government of Canada website)
Constitutional Design and Public Policy, Bicameralism and Public Policy by Professor Roger Congleton, George Mason University and Director of the Center for Study of Public Choice.
* In many states the legislatures don’t meet very long. Some meet for a month, or maybe two months. In states like Texas and Montana, by law, the legislatures meet only every other year, and then the sessions are limited in length. The Texas legislature meets for 140 days every second year. The state legislature in Montana meets for 90 days only on odd numbered years.
** For language clarification this statement has been slightly edited. To get the full context of the statement we recommend you visit the website of the New South Wales Bicameral Legislature.
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