Dutch senate is about quality control, not scoring political points

Debates in the Eerste Kamer go on so long it can take six years for a bill to become law

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte leaving the Senate building in the Hague last month. Photograph: Phil Nijhuis/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte leaving the Senate building in the Hague last month. Photograph: Phil Nijhuis/AFP/Getty Images

Wed, Oct 2, 2013, 01:00

With typical pragmatism, the Dutch regard their senate as having a totally distinct function from that of their lower house. And for that reason – although there are occasionally skirmishes between the two over specific political issues ­– there is
no real inclination to have
it abolished.

The Eerste Kamer – or, literally, “first chamber” – has 75 seats compared
with 150 for the lower house, and is elected every four years by the members of 12 provincial councils.

Those elections are indirect: voters elect their regional councillors, who in turn elect the senators. The vast majority of them are retired or former politicians. And because the senate sits only one day a week, they receive an allowance of roughly a quarter of the average MP’s annual salary of €66,396.

The Dutch senate is expected to remain relatively removed from the political cut-and-thrust which is the daily meat of the lower house. Its main function is to examine draft legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose; not in conflict with the constitution nor with international treaties; and does not infringe on citizens’ rights.

However, it does not have the power to amend, only to accept or reject, and it cannot initiate legislation.

Senators debate, of course, often at considerable length – to such an extent that it can regularly take five or six years before a bill becomes law. Those debates can, they would argue, contribute to the interpretation of a law.

Senators can put written questions to government, and they receive written replies in response. All new legislation must ultimately pass both houses.

On matters of national importance, the Senate has the power to institute an inquiry, though interestingly, unlike the lower house,
it has never exercised
that right.

“In reality, the Dutch senate is about quality control rather than about scoring political points, and that function is taken very seriously,” says one former senator.

Only the centre-left party, D66, favours the abolition of the senate. However, given the make-up of the current Liberal–Labour coalition – which has a majority in the lower house but is eight seats shy of majority in the senate – there are invariably tensions when legislation is delayed in the upper house.

That occasionally leads to mutterings about reform – but it’s only politics.