The Facebook item comment opined that Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse was just another “whacked out Nebraska teabagger”. The inflammatory nature of the opinion caused me to click the link to an article I’d normally scroll past. The jist of the short article regarded Mr. Sasse’s question for the need of the existence of the United States Senate.
At first glance, the Senator’s puzzlement did seem to reveal his cluelessness about our democratic republic and its structure, as outlined in the US Constitution. Then it dawned on me that the non-Nebraska Facebook contributors had no clue about Nebraska government. It was necessary to defend the Senator by way of a concise reply to the comment.
I made it clear that my personal political alignment is exactly the opposite that of Mr. Sasse, but I needed to explain why the Senator may have launched his outlandish question. In his first floor speech, Sasse said, “The people despise us all. Why even have a US Senate?” Whether or not he realized it, Mr. Sasse revealed his basic background about the Nebraska State Legislature.
Nebraska is unique among all the states by having a legislative branch that consists of a single legislative chamber. Our legislature is popularly called “The Unicameral”. The other 49 states and the Federal Government all have bicameral legislatures.
In my comment, I wrote that it was on this point, only, that I was defending Mr. Sasse. Regarding his question about the federal level legislative branch, I said that we should have a bicameral legislature, but it does need to be “cleaned up”.
The next day, some of my fellow Nebraskans and I discussed Sasse’s odd Senate speech. I realized that hardly any of them had thought of the parallel to our Nebraska Unicameral. I wondered aloud how many non-Nebraskans even understand that Nebraska governs itself in this unique manner. I wondered how many people in the US knew that each Canadian Province has a unicameral form of legislature.
How and why did Nebraska become the lone example of unicameral legislature in the United States?
After statehood, in 1867, Nebraska originally operated under a bicameral legislature consisting of an upper chamber called the Senate and a lower chamber called the Nebraska House of Representatives. Legislators and citizens eventually became quite unhappy with the bicameral’s very inefficient manner of lawmaking. Also, many joint conference committees were not transparent. The first advocacy for legislative consolidation began around 1913.
The major, serious push for a Nebraska Unicameral began with Nebraska’s US Senator George Norris, who had just returned from a junket to Australia. Norris was impressed
with the unicameral legislature that operated the state of Queensland. Voters in that Australian state had earlier approved a state constitutional amendment to adopt a unicameral parliament.
In 1931, Norris, a “New Deal Republican” began his campaign for Nebraska state reform. The Senator said that he wore out two sets of tires during his statewide, face to face effort to convince Nebraskans of the wisdom of his measure.
One of his arguments was that the bicameral system was a relic of the aristocratic British Parliament. At that time, the British House of Commons was elected by the citizens and the House of Lords was by royal appointment. In that the various states of the United States are built around a single class, there is no sense in having a legislature based on the idea of two classes. It seemed nonsensical to have “the same thing done twice, especially if it is to be done by two bodies of men elected in the same way and having the same jurisdiction.”
The 1934 ballot measure to abolish the state’s House of Representatives and create a one-house legislature was comfortably passed by a vote of 286,086 to 193,152. Various reasons for the victory of the unicameral issue included the popularity of George Norris. This was coupled with the public desire to cut costs of government due to the hardships of the Great Depression.
The Nebraska Legislature is unique in that it is set up as a non-partisan entity. In other states, legislative leadership is based on party affiliation. In Nebraska, this is not the case. Also, on election day, candidates for the Nebraska Senate are not listed by political party. Norris’ line of thinking was that national party lines have little to do
with local government issues. Voters who vote according to party affiliation often vote for state candidates who advocate for matters that are contrary to state interests. In theory, non-partisanship is a good idea. In practice, however, it turns out that practically all Nebraska Senators personally espouse views of the national Republican Party.
The way the Unicameral was set up, enabled greater privileges to the press and more public awareness. Norris said that each act of every Senator and of the Senate as a whole must be “transacted in the spotlight of publicity”. In the past, the bicameral conference committees met in secret, were not required to keep a public record and could be more easily influenced by lobbyists.
One of the best features that was built into the Nebraska model is that each bill can only address one issue. Any amendments to a bill must be germane to that same issue. For example, a highway funding bill may not have an amendment that addresses university staffing issues. This aspect clears away the worst roadblocks to effective state legislation. We can readily see that it would be helpful if the federal legislative branch had this restraint.
The Unicameral’s streamlining effect was immediately apparent after its debut in 1937, legislative membership was slashed from 133 in the bicameral, down to 43 in the unicameral. (In 1962, voters approved a Nebraska Constitutional amendment to increase the membership to 49 Senators.) The number of committees was reduced from 61 down to 18. The final bicameral session, in 1935, ran 110 days, passed 192 bills, and cost $202,593. Two years later, the first session of the unicameral lasted 98 days, passed 214 bills, and cost only $103,445.
The practical, physical meeting rooms of the legislature were reconfigured. The former House of Representatives chamber became the consolidated meeting room of the Nebraska Legislature. The old Senate chamber is officially vacant. It is often used for meetings and conferences. Most of the time it is a curiosity that is shown off-hand to tourists. The Art Deco doors to the old Senate Chamber are the visual treat.
Since the formation of the Unicameral, several states have investigated the Nebraska method to determine whether or not they should adopt this model. So far, none of the other 49 states have taken the leap.
The Blue Jay of Happiness reflects on a statement about corruption that could be updated to apply today. George Norris said, “Great wealth took possession of the government. It was reflected in Mr. Harding’s selection of a cabinet.”