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An upper house is one of two chambers of a bicameral legislature, the other chamber being the lower house.

Possible specific characteristics

An upper house is usually distinct from the lower house in at least one of the following respects:

  • Given less power than the lower house, with special reservations, e.g. only when seizing a proposal by evocation, not on the budget, nor the house of reference for majority assent.
  • Only limited legislative matters, such as constitutional amendments, may require its approval.
  • 'Houses of review', in that they cannot start legislation, only consider the lower houses' initiatives. Also, they may not be able to outright veto legislation.
  • In presidential systems, the upper house often has the sole power to try impeachments against the executive following enabling resolutions passed by the lower house.
  • Composed of members selected in a manner other than by popular election. Examples include hereditary membership or Government appointment.
  • Used to represent the administrative divisions of a federation.
  • Fewer seats than the lower house.
  • If elected, often for longer terms than those of the lower house; if composed of peers or nobles, they generally hold their hereditary seats for life.
  • Elected in portions for staggered terms, rather than all at once.
  • upper is called house of commend.


Parliamentary systems

In parliamentary systems the upper house is frequently seen as an advisory or "revising" chamber, for this reason its powers of direct action are often reduced in some way. Some or all of the following restrictions are often placed on upper houses:

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. An example is the British House of Lordsmarker, which under the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 may not stop, but only delay bills. It is sometimes seen as having a special role of safeguarding the Constitution of the United Kingdom 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.

Nevertheless, some states have long retained powerful upper houses. For example, the consent of the upper house to legislation may be necessary (though, as noted above, this seldom extends to budgetary measures). Constitutional arrangements of states with powerful upper houses usually include a means to resolve situations where the two houses are at odds with each other.

In recent times, Parliamentary systems have witnessed a trend towards weakening the powers of upper houses relative to their lower counterparts. Some upper houses have been abolished completely (see below); others have had their powers reduced by constitutional or legislative amendments. Also, conventions often exist that the upper house ought not to obstruct the business of government for frivolous or merely partisan reasons. These conventions have tended to harden with passage of time.

Presidential systems

In presidential systems, the upper house is frequently given other powers to compensate for its restrictions:
  • It usually has to sign off on appointments the executive makes to the cabinet and other offices.
  • It frequently has the sole authority to give consent to or denounce foreign treaties.

Institutional structure

There is great variety in the way an upper house members are assembled. It can be directly or indirectly elected, appointed, selected through hereditary means, or a certain mixture of all these systems. The German Bundesratmarker is quite unique as its members are members of the cabinets of the German states, in most cases the state premier and several ministers, they are just delegated and can be recalled anytime. In a very similar way the Council of the European Union is composed by national ministers.

Many upper houses are not directly elected, but appointed: either by the head of government or in some other way. This is usually intended to produce a house of experts or otherwise distinguished citizens, who would not necessarily be returned in an election. For example, members of the Canadian Senate are appointed by the Governor General on advice of the Prime Minister.

The seats are sometimes hereditary, as still is partly the case in the British House of Lordsmarker, and the Japanese House of Peers (until this house was abolished in 1947).

However, it is also common that the upper house consist of delegates who are indirectly elected by state governments or local officials. For example, this system was used in the United States Senate until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

In addition, the upper house of many nations is directly elected, but in different proportions to the lower house - for example, the Senates of Australia and the United Statesmarker have a fixed number of elected representatives from each state, regardless of the population.


Many jurisdictions, such as Denmarkmarker, Swedenmarker, Croatiamarker, Perumarker, Venezuelamarker, New Zealandmarker, and most Canadian provincesmarker, once possessed upper houses but abolished them to adopt unicameral systems. Newfoundland had a Legislative Council prior to joining Canadamarker, as did Ontario when it was Upper Canada. Nebraskamarker is the only state in the United States to have a unicameral legislature, which it achieved when it abolished its lower house in 1934.

The Australian state of Queenslandmarker also once had a legislative council before abolishing it in 1922; at this time members of the Legislative Council were not elected by the citizenry and so the council was found to be undemocratic and thus unconstitutional. As this was a purely internal matter, all other Australian states continue to have bicameral systems.

Titles of upper houses

Common terms

Unique titles

See also

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