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How Nebraska Evolved from an Oasis of Civility to a Cockpit of Conflict

It took a long time for the state’s unique system of governance to fall into the hyperpartisanship that so many states have experienced. Can Nebraska find a way back?

Nebraska legislative chamber
Nebraska’s George W. Norris Legislative Chamber (Photo: Nebraska Legislature)
It’s a safe bet that George Norris wouldn’t be very happy with what’s gone on this year in the government he created for his home state of Nebraska.

Norris was a member of Congress for 40 years, and his integrity and dedication made him a revered figure in the state he represented. Toward the end of his career, in the 1930s, he redesigned Nebraska’s governance realm in accordance with his principles and led the campaign for his plan’s adoption by the state’s voters.

Norris couldn’t stand the bickering between the House and Senate in Washington — he served in both — so he established a one-chamber legislature. He hated rigid partisanship, so he gave the state a nonpartisan political system, in which the lawmakers ran for a single-chamber legislative body without party labels, party caucuses or party leadership positions. Caucuses were put together largely on the basis of geography.

Most of the members were Republicans back home, but Democrats were in on many of the big decisions and got to chair important committees; a decade ago, when a prominent GOP legislator resigned from the party in disgust, he was allowed to keep his post as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The cumulative result of all this was a culture of civility at the state Capitol that served as a model for more fractious legislative bodies in other states.

And so it has been ever since George Norris’ day. Charlyne Berens of the University of Nebraska, the leading expert on the state’s government, wrote recently that “for almost 90 years, Nebraska’s one-house, nonpartisan Legislature has served this state and its people well. … Instead of the party telling senators what positions to take and how to vote, all senators have their own voice.” Or as one longtime member put it a few years ago, “We’re 49 independent agents.” Civility prevailed at the Capitol in Lincoln, decade after decade.

BUT IT ISN’T PREVAILING RIGHT NOW. If Norris had returned to earth to watch the legislative proceedings in 2023, he’d have seen a show he never would have expected or wanted.

Members shouted at each other on the legislative floor this spring in raucous scenes that resembled the chaotic Israeli Knesset or the unruly British House of Commons. Nearly every bill that came up was filibustered, so that when the legislative session reached its halfway point scarcely anything had been passed. “We’ve never seen something like this,” the clerk of the Legislature told a local reporter. “My hope,” one legislator declared, “is that we’ve just established and lived through what should be the low-water mark for Nebraska politics. No one wants to repeat this year.”

The immediate cause of the unprecedented rancor was Legislative Bill 574, also known as the Let Them Grow Act. LB 574 barred health-care providers from performing gender-transition surgeries and restricted access to puberty-blocking medication and hormone treatments for anyone under 19. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh was so incensed by it that she decided to filibuster every pending piece of legislation, even ones that she agreed with. She held the floor for as much as 12 hours a day, reading out recipes and obscure legislative trivia. “If this Legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority,” she proclaimed, “then I am going to make it painful — painful for everyone.” And she did.

The stalemate didn’t go on forever. After weeks of legislative paralysis, three Democrats voted with the nominal Republican majority — 32 seats out of 49 — to give the GOP the two-thirds it needed to end the filibusters and bring the disputed issue to a decision. The gender-care bill passed, and attached to it was a ban on most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy — a move that made the dissidents even angrier. One of them was so disgusted by the Democrats who gave in that she abandoned the Democratic Party altogether and rebranded herself as an independent. “They did the easy thing instead of the right thing,” she said, “and I will never respect them again.”

Once the logjam was broken, the large group of militant legislative conservatives pushed through a whole array of priorities that they had been promoting for years. They enacted a school choice bill that had failed six times because of opposition from the state’s teachers’ unions. They relaxed the rules on carrying firearms in public. They repealed Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet restrictions.

FROM A HARD-RIGHT POINT OF VIEW, it wasn’t accurate to call the 2023 legislative session unproductive. Republican Gov. Jim Pillen said it was just the opposite. “This is one of the most impactful sessions in Nebraska history,” he declared in a speech on the last day. “In the face of extraordinary challenges, the will of the people has prevailed and our state has implemented once-in-a-generation conservative policies.”

The dissidents, as you might expect, were not mollified. Cavanaugh voiced her disgust not only at the gender-care ban and abortion measure but also at a package of tax cuts aimed at businesses and more-affluent residents. “We did next to nothing to ease the economic struggles of everyday Nebraskans,” she lamented at the session’s end.

Granted that Nebraska has always been a conservative state, why did all the hostility erupt so conspicuously in 2023? Some of the answers were provided by the veteran political reporter Paul Hammel in a series of insightful articles in the Nebraska Examiner.
George Norris
A Republican and a progressive, George Norris frequently ignored party lines. Citing him for his independence, Sen. John F. Kennedy included Norris in his 1956 book Profiles in Courage. (Library of Congress)

One of those answers involved looking beyond the Legislature’s nonpartisan formalities to the way the state’s broader politics has changed. In the heyday of civility and bipartisan cooperation, there was a significant cadre of moderate Republicans who worked cooperatively with the Democratic minority. That moderate GOP bloc has all but disappeared. To a large extent, it was purged in primaries by former Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was incensed by their disagreements with him over raising the state gas tax.

The current climate of distrust isn’t just ideological — it’s geographical and cultural. There are no registered Democrats representing districts in the western three-quarters of the state. More than ever before, there is a disconnect between the legislative majority from small-town and rural Nebraska and the Democrats who are almost exclusively from the larger metros of Omaha and Lincoln. The two factions just don’t see society in their state in the same way — they don’t even do much communicating with each other.

Some political leaders argue that in light of all these changes, the widely admired nonpartisanship of the system has become a misnomer. Todd Watson, the political director of the state Republican Party, insists that the nonpartisan ideal has gradually ceased to describe the actual reality prevailing in the Legislature. “‘Nonpartisan’ makes people all feel warm and fuzzy inside,” he said last fall. “It makes for a nice story. But it you look at the votes, how they’ve gone down, in the last, oh, probably a good five, 10 years, it’s been pretty partisan votes on a lot of issues.”

EVEN IF HE’S RIGHT, though, the real problem in the Legislature this year wasn’t partisan voting — it was partisan bitterness and an overall absence of the civility for which Nebraska politics has long been appreciated.

It’s obvious, of course, that Nebraska politics, even if it is historically unique, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Politics has grown more partisan and more conflict-ridden in most states. Nebraska, thanks in large part to George Norris, was about the last one to get there.

On the Saturday in 2020 when Joe Biden was finally declared president-elect, he gave a speech that was clearly heartfelt and at times eloquent. But one choice of words stuck out for me at the time, and continues to do so now. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify … to make America respected around the world again. And to unite us here at home.”

A plea for unity is, in many times and circumstances, a noble gesture. But it rarely succeeds. We are not only far from unity right now in this country, we are unlikely to achieve it any time soon. What we can achieve, and what I wish Biden had stressed, is civility. Even if we disagree about almost everything in politics — even if we are not united — we can treat each other with courtesy and respect.

Politicians in Nebraska practiced civility in their Legislature for the better part of a century. It wouldn’t be that difficult to restore it. My hope is that before long they will figure out a way to get it back.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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