Politics

Uniquely Unicameral

Nebraska's single-house legislative body is unlike any that has existed in any state before or since.
by | January 2006

The late U.S. Senator George Norris, one of the most idealistic and incorruptible legislators America has ever produced, used to come up with some clever lines to express his frustrations. "They say we have a system of checks and balances," he would tell his Nebraska constituents. "Well, we do. The politicians cash the checks and the lobbyists keep the balances."

Norris felt sure he understood the core problem with American democracy: dysfunctional legislatures. He spent much of his career dreaming about what an ideal legislature might be like. It would be small, so every member could speak out and have a role in the decisions. It would do all of its business in open session. It would be nonpartisan, so that major issues could be decided on their merits. And it would have one chamber, not two, so that lobbyists didn't distort the intent of bills behind closed doors in conference committees.

Norris never made much headway at reforming Congress, even though he served there 40 years. But toward the end of his career, he finally got a chance to try some of his ideas in a place he cared about deeply: the legislature in his home state, where he complained that government was being run by "Lilliputian politicians for private or partisan advantage."

In 1934, after a decade of debate, and in a gesture of respect for their most admired public figure, Nebraska voters gave the 73-year-old Norris most of what he wanted. They created the Unicameral, a nonpartisan, single-house legislative body unlike any that has existed in any state before or since. Norris thought it was the beginning of genuine legislative reform in the United States, and he said so. "You have the opportunity," he told the members of the first unicameral session, "to render service to your fellow citizens that no other legislature has ever had. Outside observers were almost as hyperbolic. The Unicameral, Newsweek magazine wrote, is "something near the ideal of democracy."

Nearly 70 years later, George Norris' great experiment is so well entrenched in Nebraska that the citizens simply take it for granted. Elsewhere, few students of politics pay much attention to it. No other state has seriously considered adopting it. But the Unicameral is interesting, and still raises provocative questions about the legislative process.

Charlyne Berens, a professor of communications at the University of Nebraska, thinks those questions are not only interesting but also important, and has written a good book about them, entitled, appropriately enough, One House.

George Norris was a man of stubborn conviction, and one of his deepest convictions was that, as Berens puts it, "where parties and partisanship predominate, economy and efficiency disappear." He began his career as a Republican, bolted to support the Progressive Robert La Follette for president in 1924, backed most of the programs of FDR and the New Deal, and left the Senate as an independent in 1942. If Norris had had the power to abolish parties in Congress, he probably would have.

When it came to the Nebraska legislature, he did. He told the voters if there was any excuse for partisanship in Washington, there was none at the state level, where government was mostly a matter of sound administration and management, and ideology was out of place. No doubt he believed this; virtually no one believes it today, at a time when legislative bodies all over the country, as well as both chambers of Congress, are riven by ideological disputes. But Norris sold it to the Nebraska voters. Ever since the Unicameral opened for business in 1937, its members have been required to check their partisan affiliations at the door. Whatever they may personally believe--and virtually all of them are either Democrats or Republicans on their home turf--at the Capitol in Lincoln they are supposed to be just 49 senators.

Does it really work that way? For the most part, Berens asserts, it actually does. It's no secret in the Unicameral which party most of the members favor, but there are no party caucuses and very little effort to establish coalitions on a party-line basis. Mike Johanns, who served as Nebraska's Republican governor for six years before becoming U.S. agriculture secretary, learned that lesson painfully in 2002, when he vetoed five major bills, and the legislature overrode him on all of them. "I need 25 votes to pass legislation," Johanns complained, "and there are 29 senators who are registered Republicans, but it seems like I'm dealing with 49 independent people."

The two-party system was only one of the traditional political institutions George Norris didn't much care for. Legislative leadership was another one. In his view, strong leaders were simply inviting targets for lobbyists trading and dispensing cash. In his custom-designed legislature, the presiding officer would be little more than a moderator. Committee members would be elected by the senators together, each one casting an equal vote. All bills would be debated on the floor in the order in which committees reported them out. Debates would proceed without limits or structure imposed by the chair.

This part of the Norris vision didn't prove entirely workable in practice. With no one in charge of the calendar, precious floor time was wasted on bills that didn't need it. Obstreperous individual members abused their privileges of unlimited debate. Gradually, over a period of decades, successive speakers gained some of the prerogatives held by their counterparts in other states. But not too many. The Nebraska speakership remains one of the weakest in any American legislature.

The third crucial element Norris insisted on was absolute transparency in legislative procedure. Every bill introduced was entitled to a pubic hearing, whether it stood any chance of passage or not. Any citizen who wanted to testify could walk into the hearing room and speak--no appointments necessary. Remarkably, this piece remains intact. It is an undeniable time-waster, and repeated efforts have been made to change it over the years, but the legislature is small enough to get away with it. In a typical year, the number of bills introduced still rarely exceeds 1,000.

Guaranteed hearings and walk-in testimony would be difficult in even a medium-sized state legislature; in Illinois, Michigan or California, they would be ludicrous. But what about some of Norris's other ideas? What about slimming down to one legislative chamber? Would that be worth trying elsewhere? From time to time, political leaders in various states have launched campaigns to create a Unicameral.

The most notable of those efforts came in Minnesota, during the recent gubernatorial tenure of Jesse Ventura. The former wrestler was no George Norris, but he did have similar feelings about partisanship. Elected on a minor-party ticket in 1998, he found himself up against a House controlled by Republicans and a Senate dominated by Democrats. The two chambers rarely agreed with each other on anything important; Ventura was often an irrelevant bystander to their bickering. It's no wonder he concluded that eliminating parties from the legislature would benefit independent-minded souls such as himself, and the people in general.

Ventura also bought most of the other Norris arguments, insisting that a one-house legislature would be easier for voters to understand, harder for lobbyists to manipulate and immune to the closed-door trickery of conference committees. He wanted a public referendum on switching to a Unicameral system; when legislators refused to give it to him, he accused them of "a classic bicameral ploy." The idea never made it out of committee, and no other state has considered anything like it since.

Still, it isn't hard to think of a few that might benefit from it. All you have to do is cross the border from Nebraska into Kansas, and you find a reasonably similar state whose legislature has spent the past decade engaged in unseemly partisan bickering that has generated a great deal of public cynicism and rather little constructive action. It's true that partisan warfare in Kansas doesn't take place entirely between Democrats and Republicans--a lot of it, perhaps most, has been within the Republican Party itself. Still, if you compare the mess in Kansas to the relatively peaceful political climate in Nebraska, George Norris ends up looking pretty good.

Then there's New York. It's endured 30 years of legislative stagnation rooted in the rock-solid majorities that Democrats hold in one chamber and Republicans in the other. It's the petty rivalries between the chambers that have delayed budget adoption for months during almost every session in the past decade. It's silly to talk about New York abandoning partisan politics, but it's reasonable to argue that a one-house legislature--regardless of which party controlled it--would have served the state and its voters far better.

Then again... You can look elsewhere and find arguments just as powerful for the opposite point of view. Virginia's Republican House of Delegates has been mired in ideological rigidity for the past few years, but its Republican Senate has proved constructive and responsible, working closely with a Democratic governor to generate needed fiscal reforms.

In Republican-run Florida, House leaders have tended to stake out a role as provocateurs, proposing radical schemes and waiting for the more temperate Senate to rein them in. In those two states, a Norris- style one-house legislature likely would have done more harm than good.

So the answer, not surprisingly, is that it all depends. Charlyne Berens believes that if George Norris were to return to the Nebraska Capitol today, he'd be gratified to see his experiment doing as well as it is. He might be a little disappointed to see that it hadn't taken root anywhere else. But he probably wouldn't want to give up. He'd just jot down a few choice words about "party machines and bosses" and start campaigning again.

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