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United States Capitol building, where the legislature of the United States, the United States Congress, meets, located in Washington, DC United States Capitol west front edit2.jpg
United States Capitol building, where the legislature of the United States, the United States Congress, meets, located in Washington, DC

A legislature is a deliberative assembly with the legal authority to make laws for a political entity such as a country, nation or city. They are often contrasted with the executive and judicial powers of government.


Laws enacted by legislatures are usually known as primary legislation. In addition, legislatures may observe and steer governing actions, with authority to amend the budget involved.

The members of a legislature are called legislators. In a democracy, legislators are most commonly popularly elected, although indirect election and appointment by the executive are also used, particularly for bicameral legislatures featuring an upper house.


Map showing the terminology for each country's national legislature Legislation Terminology Map.png
Map showing the terminology for each country's national legislature

The name used to refer to a legislative body varies by country.

Common names include:

By names:

By languages:

Though the specific roles for each legislature differ by location, they all aim to serve the same purpose of appointing officials to represent their citizens to determine appropriate legislation for the country.


Among the earliest recognised legislatures was the Athenian Ecclesia. [1] In the Middle Ages, European monarchs would host assemblies of the nobility, which would later develop into predecessors of modern legislatures. [1] These were often named the Estates. The oldest surviving legislature is the Icelandic Althing, founded in 930 CE.


Democratic legislatures have six major functions: representation, deliberation, legislation, authorizing expenditure, making governments, and oversight. [1]


There exist five ways that representation can be achieved in a legislature: [1]


One of the major functions of a legislature is to discuss and debate issues of major importance to society. [1] This activity can take place in two forms. In debating legislatures, such as the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the floor of the legislature frequently sees lively debate. [1] In contrast, in committee-based legislatures like the United States Congress, deliberation takes place in closed committees. [1]


While legislatures have nominally the sole power to create laws, the substantive extent of this power depends on details of the political system. In Westminster-style legislatures the executive (composed of the cabinet) can essentially pass any laws it wants, as it usually has a majority of legislators behind it, kept in check by the party whip, while committee-based legislatures in continental Europe and those in presidential systems of the Americas have more independence in drafting and amending bills. [2]

Authorizing expenditure

The origins of the power of the purse which legislatures typically have in passing or denying government budgets goes back to the European assemblies of nobility which the monarchs would have to consult before raising taxes. [3] For this power to be actually effective, the legislature should be able to amend the budget, have an effective committee system, enough time for consideration, as well as access to relevant background information. [3]


There are several ways in which the legislature can hold the government accountable, including questioning, interpellations, and votes of confidence.

Function in authoritarian regimes

In contrast to democratic systems, legislatures under authoritarianism are used to ensure the stability of the power structure by co-opting potential competing interests within the elites, which they achieve by: [4]

Internal organization

Each chamber of the legislature consists of a number of legislators who use some form of parliamentary procedure to debate political issues and vote on proposed legislation. There must be a certain number of legislators present to carry out these activities; this is called a quorum.

Some of the responsibilities of a legislature, such as giving first consideration to newly proposed legislation, are usually delegated to committees made up of a few of the members of the chamber(s).

The members of a legislature usually represent different political parties; the members from each party generally meet as a caucus to organize their internal affairs.

Relation to other branches of government

Legislatures vary widely in the amount of political power they wield, compared to other political players such as judiciaries, militaries, and executives. In 2009, political scientists M. Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig constructed a Parliamentary powers index in an attempt to quantify the different degrees of power among national legislatures. The German Bundestag, the Italian Parliament, and the Mongolian State Great Khural tied for most powerful, while Myanmar's House of Representatives and Somalia's Transitional Federal Assembly (since replaced by the Federal Parliament of Somalia) tied for least powerful. [5]

Some political systems follows the principle of legislative supremacy, which holds that the legislature is the supreme branch of government and cannot be bound by other institutions, such as the judicial branch or a written constitution. Such a system renders the legislature more powerful.

In parliamentary and semi-presidential systems of government, the executive is responsible to the legislature, which may remove it with a vote of no confidence. On the other hand, according to the separation of powers doctrine, the legislature in a presidential system is considered an independent and coequal branch of government along with both the judiciary and the executive. [6] Nevertheless, many presidential systems provide for the impeachment of the executive for criminal or unconstitutional behaviour.

Legislatures will sometimes delegate their legislative power to administrative or executive agencies. [7]


Legislatures are made up of individual members, known as legislators, who vote on proposed laws. A legislature usually contains a fixed number of legislators; because legislatures usually meet in a specific room filled with seats for the legislators, this is often described as the number of "seats" it contains. For example, a legislature that has 100 "seats" has 100 members. By extension, an electoral district that elects a single legislator can also be described as a "seat", as, for example, in the phrases "safe seat" and "marginal seat". [8]

After election, the members may be protected by parliamentary immunity or parliamentary privilege, either for all actions the duration of their entire term, or for just those related to their legislative duties.


The Congress of the Republic of Peru, the country's national legislature, meets in the Legislative Palace in 2010. Vista panoramica del Hemiciclo de sesiones del Congreso del Peru.jpg
The Congress of the Republic of Peru, the country's national legislature, meets in the Legislative Palace in 2010.

A legislature may debate and vote upon bills as a single unit, or it may be composed of multiple separate assemblies, called by various names including legislative chambers, debate chambers, and houses, which debate and vote separately and have distinct powers. A legislature which operates as a single unit is unicameral, one divided into two chambers is bicameral, and one divided into three chambers is tricameral.

The British House of Commons, its lower house House of Commons Chamber 1.png
The British House of Commons, its lower house

In bicameral legislatures, one chamber is usually considered the upper house, while the other is considered the lower house. The two types are not rigidly different, but members of upper houses tend to be indirectly elected or appointed rather than directly elected, tend to be allocated by administrative divisions rather than by population, and tend to have longer terms than members of the lower house. In some systems, particularly parliamentary systems, the upper house has less power and tends to have a more advisory role, but in others, particularly federal presidential systems, the upper house has equal or even greater power.

The German Bundestag, its theoretical lower house Deutscher Bundestag Plenarsaal Seitenansicht.jpg
The German Bundestag, its theoretical lower house

In federations, the upper house typically represents the federation's component states. This is also the case with the supranational legislature of the European Union. The upper house may either contain the delegates of state governments as in the European Union and in Germany and, before 1913, in the United States  or be elected according to a formula that grants equal representation to states with smaller populations, as is the case in Australia and the United States since 1913.

The Australian Senate, its upper house Senate panorama.jpg
The Australian Senate, its upper house

Tricameral legislatures are rare; the Massachusetts Governor's Council still exists, but the most recent national example existed in the waning years of White-minority rule in South Africa. Tetracameral legislatures no longer exist, but they were previously used in Scandinavia. The only legislature with a number of chambers bigger than four was the Federal Assembly of Yugoslavia; initially established as a Pentacameral body in 1963, it was turned into a hexacameral body in 1967.


Legislatures vary widely in their size. Among national legislatures, China's National People's Congress is the largest with 2,980 members, [9] while Vatican City's Pontifical Commission is the smallest with 7. [10] Neither legislature is democratically elected: The Pontifical Commission members are appointed by the Pope and the National People's Congress is indirectly elected within the context of a one-party state. [9] [11]

Legislature size is a trade off between efficiency and representation; the smaller the legislature, the more efficiently it can operate, but the larger the legislature, the better it can represent the political diversity of its constituents. Comparative analysis of national legislatures has found that size of a country's lower house tends to be proportional to the cube root of its population; that is, the size of the lower house tends to increase along with population, but much more slowly. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Westminster system</span> Parliamentary system of government

The Westminster system, or Westminster model, is a type of parliamentary government that incorporates a series of procedures for operating a legislature, first developed in England. Key aspects of the system include an executive branch made up of members of the legislature, and that is responsible to the legislature; the presence of parliamentary opposition parties; and a ceremonial head of state who is separate from the head of government. The term derives from the Palace of Westminster, which has been the seat of the Westminster Parliament in England and later the United Kingdom since the 13th century. The Westminster system is often contrasted with the presidential system that originated in the United States, or with the semi-presidential system, based on the government of France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">State legislature (United States)</span> Legislature of a U.S. state

In the United States, a state legislature is the legislative branch in each of the 50 U.S. states.

Representative democracy is a type of democracy where representatives are elected by the public. Nearly all modern Western-style democracies function as some type of representative democracy: for example, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the United States. This is different from direct democracy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Veto</span> Legal power to stop an official action, usually enactment of legislation

A veto is a legal power to unilaterally stop an official action. In the most typical case, a president or monarch vetoes a bill to stop it from becoming law. In many countries, veto powers are established in the country's constitution. Veto powers are also found at other levels of government, such as in state, provincial or local government, and in international bodies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Parliamentary system</span> Form of government

A parliamentary system, or parliamentary democracy, is a system of democratic government where the head of government derives their democratic legitimacy from their ability to command the support ("confidence") of the legislature, typically a parliament, to which they are accountable.

Bicameralism is a type of legislature that is divided into two separate assemblies, chambers, or houses, known as a bicameral legislature. Bicameralism is distinguished from unicameralism, in which all members deliberate and vote as a single group. As of 2022, roughly 40% of world's national legislatures are bicameral, while unicameralism represents 60% nationally and much more at the subnational level.

Unicameralism is a type of legislature consisting of one house or assembly that legislates and votes as one. Unicameralism has become an increasingly common type of legislature, making up nearly 60% of all national legislatures and an even greater share of subnational legislatures.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Backbencher</span> Parliamentarian who neither holds ministerial office nor shadows a minister

In Westminster and other parliamentary systems, a backbencher is a member of parliament (MP) or a legislator who occupies no governmental office and is not a frontbench spokesperson in the Opposition, being instead simply a member of the "rank and file".

Tricameralism is the practice of having three legislative or parliamentary chambers. It is contrasted with unicameralism and bicameralism, each of which is far more common.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Speaker (politics)</span> Presiding officer of a legislative body

The speaker of a deliberative assembly, especially a legislative body, is its presiding officer, or the chair. The title was first used in 1377 in England.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Assembly of Quebec</span> Provincial legislative body in Canada

The National Assembly of Quebec is the legislative body of the province of Quebec in Canada. Legislators are called MNAs. The King in Right of Quebec, represented by the lieutenant governor of Quebec, and the National Assembly compose the Legislature of Quebec, which operates in a fashion similar to those of other Westminster-style parliamentary systems. The assembly has 125 members elected first past the post from single-member districts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Massachusetts General Court</span> Legislative branch of the state government of Massachusetts

The Massachusetts General Court, formally the General Court of Massachusetts, is the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts located in the state capital of Boston. The name "General Court" is a holdover from the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when the colonial assembly, in addition to making laws, sat as a judicial court of appeals. Before the adoption of the state constitution in 1780, it was called the Great and General Court, but the official title was shortened by John Adams, author of the state constitution. It is a bicameral body. The upper house is the Massachusetts Senate which is composed of 40 members. The lower body, the Massachusetts House of Representatives, has 160 members; until 1978, the state house had 240 members. It meets in the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill in Boston.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North Carolina General Assembly</span> Legislative branch of the state government of North Carolina

The North Carolina General Assembly is the bicameral legislature of the state government of North Carolina. The legislature consists of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The General Assembly meets in the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh, North Carolina.

An upper house is one of two chambers of a bicameral legislature, the other chamber being the lower house. The house formally designated as the upper house is usually smaller and often has more restricted power than the lower house. A legislature composed of only one house is described as unicameral.

A lower house is the lower chamber of a bicameral legislature, and upper chamber is the upper house. Despite its official position "below" the upper house, in many legislatures worldwide, the lower house has come to wield more power or otherwise exert significant political influence. The lower house, typically, is the larger of the two chambers, meaning its members are more numerous.

Direct election is a system of choosing political officeholders in which the voters directly cast ballots for the persons or political party that they desire to see elected. The method by which the winner or winners of a direct election are chosen depends upon the electoral system used. The most commonly used systems are the plurality system and the two-round system for single-winner elections, such as a presidential election, and proportional representation for the election of a legislature or executive.

A state government is the government that controls a subdivision of a country in a federal form of government, which shares political power with the federal or national government. A state government may have some level of political autonomy, or be subject to the direct control of the federal government. This relationship may be defined by a constitution.

The right of (legislative) initiative is the constitutionally defined power to propose a new law (bill) in a legislature.

A government trifecta is a political situation in which the same political party controls the executive branch and both chambers of the legislative branch in countries that have a bicameral legislature and an executive that is not fused. The term is primarily used in the United States, where the term originated—being borrowed from horse race betting—but also in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Semi-parliamentary system</span> System where voters vote simultaneously for both prime minister and members of legislature

Semi-parliamentary system can refer to either a prime-ministerial system, in which voters simultaneously vote for both members of legislature and the prime minister, or to a system of government in which the legislature is split into two parts that are both directly elected – one that has the power to remove the members of the executive by a vote of no confidence and another that does not. The former was first proposed by Maurice Duverger, who used it to refer to Israel from 1996 to 2001. The second was identified by German academic Steffen Ganghof.


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  9. 1 2 "IPU PARLINE database: "General information" module". IPU Parline Database. International Parliamentary Union. Archived from the original on 6 August 2017. Retrieved 30 April 2019.
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Further reading