How Our Legislatures Are Designed for Inefficiency

Nebraska had a good idea: Do away with the costly duplication of bicameralism.
June 2, 2015
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

When the Founding Fathers were considering how American democracy should be structured, they decided on a bicameral national legislature, based in some ways on the one they were familiar with from Great Britain. And while our current state of partisan congressional dysfunction might suggest otherwise, it's a system that generally works on the federal level. But for state governments, bicameralism creates unnecessary and costly duplication.

Like the British system, the founders envisioned an arrangement under which one chamber of Congress (the House of Representatives) would be popularly elected. Senators, the rough equivalent of members of the British House of Lords, would be chosen by state legislatures. But U.S. senators have been popularly elected since ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

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One reason a bicameral legislature makes sense at the federal level was illustrated by the Connecticut Compromise. One proposal at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was for the number of representatives and senators from each state to be determined by population. But small states like Delaware were concerned that they would have little voice in federal affairs under such a system. The compromise was that the number of House members would be based on population, but that every state, regardless of population, would have two senators. That distinction doesn't exist on the state level, where both lower- and upper-house districts are drawn based on population.

Every state except Nebraska has a bicameral legislature, but with the passage of time, it's a setup that has come to make less sense. Nebraska passed a ballot initiative to create a unicameral legislature in 1934. When it was implemented in 1937, the state's legislative costs were cut nearly by half.

But cost isn't the only reason for states to adopt unicameral legislatures. Under the bicameral model, differences between bills passed by the lower and upper houses are hashed out in conference committees whose meetings are not public. Conference committees include only a few legislators, and their deliberations can easily be influenced by lobbyists. A unicameral legislature promotes greater transparency.

Then there is the efficiency of the process, with legislation not having to make its way through two bodies and then a conference committee before arriving on the governor's desk.

For those who fear that unicameral legislatures would lead to rash decisions, Nebraska has safeguards in place. In addition to judicial review and the gubernatorial veto, the state requires that each bill have a public hearing, that there be a period of at least five days after introduction before a bill is passed, and that each piece of legislation deal with only a single subject.

Unicameral legislatures are hardly radical; virtually every American municipality has one. The legislatures of Canada's provinces also are unicameral.

It's certainly unlikely that we're about to see a serious movement to do away with bicameral state legislatures. The impediments, from entrenched officeholders to the opportunity for lobbyists to have greater sway over legislation, are formidable. But there's little doubt that unicameral legislatures would save money and improve efficiency and transparency.

Perhaps George Norris, the crusader behind Nebraska's adoption of its unicameral system, said it best: "The constitutions of our various states are built upon the idea that there is but one class. If this be true, there is no sense or reason in having the same thing done twice. ..."