When the Senate — commonly known as the First Chamber in the Netherlands — arose in 1815, little did anyone know what the future had in store for it. Now, exactly two centuries later, its future is probably more uncertain than ever before. Although there has always been discussion regarding its place within the Dutch political system, starting from its very day of inception, never has there been a louder call for change — that is, to change the fundamental idea behind the Senate. Some politicians would get rid of it today rather than tomorrow, while others still foresee some sort of future for them poor old senators. Unsurprisingly, though, these are mostly senators themselves…
A long since past
In order to understand the Senate’s place within the Dutch political system, we have to go all the way back to the early 19th century — 1814 to be precise. This was a time when the formation of the independent Dutch state was in full swing, coming out of a republic consisting roughly of present-day the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. When the first constitution was being constructed, the initial plans didn’t make mention of a Senate whatsoever, but that changed when the influential Belgian nobility imposed it on us just a year later. Members of the Senate were to be appointed by the king, and they would typically be appointed for life. This was unlike anything any of the Dutch provinces were used to; they had always stuck to unicameralism up until then. When the Belgian provinces finally declared independence in 1830, the republic split up in the aforementioned countries, but the Senate remained operational in the Netherlands despite a lack of support for it — most likely due to the the king’s great influence. It has been there ever since, with the task of reviewing proposed legislation and judging whether these new laws can be implemented effectively. Or, as one minister put it: “The Senate isn’t there to create the good, but rather to prevent the bad.”
Be that as it may, it’s legitimate to ask whether this is still the case today. Is the Senate still preventing the bad, or could it be that it’s actually preventing the good? Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen numerous situations where the approval of a new law depended on the vote of just a handful of senators, as in the case of the new Health Care Act in 2014. Situations like these have become more and more common over time, made possible by the fragmentation of the Dutch political landscape in recent years. This has led to shaky situations on several occasions, and it’s still a big issue for the current Cabinet, since it doesn’t have a majority in the Senate. This forces them to negotiate with other parties all the time in order to ensure that they get the required support for new laws, and this includes the slightly crazy Reformed Political Party — the radical Protestant conservative party that still adheres to “God’s word”. This is not at all how the Senate was ever intended. Its role has slowly changed over time, because what was once la chambre de réflexion appears to have turned into a body that’s more powerful than it was ever intended to be. Or has it?
Although things seem to have changed, some experts argue that the Senate’s power hasn’t actually increased at all; they point out that it has always been a political body, but that this is the first time in history that the ruling parties don’t have a majority in the Senate, thus revealing the effect. It’s interesting to see how we ever ended up in this situation of increased dependence on the Senate. Things have generally gotten a lot grimmer over the last few years in both Chambers, with parties — particularly those on the respective wings — becoming more and more distrustful of the Cabinet, adopting a hostile attitude towards it as a result. Floating voters then pick up on this suspicion, as do people who voted for them in expectation of some sort of miracle, i.e. major improvements in their lives within just months of the election. When these changes ultimately prove to take a bit longer than initially hoped for, the two groups typically go on to ‘punish’ the incumbent Cabinet during the next elections, and more often than not these are the provincial elections — the ones from which a new Senate is constructed. You can probably already start to see how these elections have completely ceased to be about the provinces; instead, they’ve become a highly strategic process to try to gain as much control over the Senate as possible. To illustrate: coalition parties sometimes instruct their members in the States-General to vote for their partner party if it’s close to getting an extra seat, while some of the smaller parties have started to bundle their powers in order to get their hands on so-called ‘rest seats’. There has even been a policy change recently in an attempt to stop parties from employing these tactics; all members of the States-General must now vote at the exact same time, just to ensure that the strategy can’t be altered halfway through. It’s the ultimate proof of the politicisation of the Senate, and it just goes to show how even provincial elections have come to influence national politics a great deal — a great flaw in the system, according to many politicians.
Alternatives to the Senate
All of the above raises the question why a politically biased Chamber has to be in charge of this task, rather than a completely neutral institution. We have plenty of these when it comes to economic policy analysis, such as CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), Statistics Netherlands (CBS), and the Netherlands Court of Audit (NCA), just to name a few. These are all closely linked to the government, providing it with data and — consequently — advice. A similar independent institution could take the role of the Senate, such as the Council of State. In fact, this advisory body must already be consulted by the Cabinet on proposed legislation before a law is submitted to Parliament. We could take this one step further by having it replace the Senate altogether. It can ultimately only be a good thing to have an unbiased ‘referee’ keep an eye on things, especially when the stakes are getting higher and higher with each passing day. You only really have to look at the way that parties approach those provincial elections to get a sense of that.
Realistically speaking, and knowing how this country works, the Senate isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Should we ever want to get rid of it, then that’s going to be a very difficult thing to achieve. It would require a constitutional amendment — one that’s particularly hard to accomplish. First, you need a ‘simple’ majority in both Chambers, and then, after both Chambers have been re-elected, another two-thirds majority in Parliament is required. In other words: the Senate has to sign its own death warrant — twice — before any of this could happen. That’s to say: it’s here to stay.
That leaves us with a few possibilities, the most important of which I think is depriving the Senate of its power to veto, and to merely give it the chance to send back criticism to the Second Chamber instead. Most politicians (not just Dutch ones) seem to agree that the primacy should lie with the House of Representatives, and as long as the Senate has the right to block laws, it could well continue to thwart the Cabinet for a long time to come. Even though there are also examples of Senators who’ve gone in against the assessment of their party in the Second Chamber, it’s safe to say that the Senate has ceased to be a constructive body; instead, it’s now a rather obstructive one.