Nebraska’s nonpartisan, one-house Legislature works just fine. Don’t change it | Opinion

A General Assembly free of partisanship puts the people first. Is there a lesson for Pa. here?

George W. Norris Legislative Chamber (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

George W. Norris Legislative Chamber (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office/Nebraska Examiner).

By Charlyne Berens

For almost 90 years, Nebraska’s one-house, nonpartisan Legislature has served this state and its people well. The current proposal, Legislative Resolution 2CA, to return to a two-house, partisan body would expand the size and complexity of our Legislature with little or no benefit to the people

Although far from perfect, our current system has done well, living up to its original and commendable goals. Why abandon it?

George Norris and the other promoters of the small, one-house legislature promised it would facilitate good government. They said the new system would be more open and accessible, more efficient and accountable. Here’s how the mechanisms they set up work to make that happen.

To begin with, Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature is smaller and more streamlined than a large, two-house body would be. So it’s easier for the public to keep track of each representative’s positions and votes and to let them know what we think. It keeps senators more accountable to voters – in their own districts and across the state.

Secondly, in a bicameral body, senators in one house can easily pass the buck to the other house. They can take what they might see as a more “popular” position on a bill they dislike, knowing the other house is likely to trash it for them, allowing them to escape accountability.

Furthermore, in a two-house legislature, each house comes up with language on a proposed policy. Then, by necessity, a few members of each house are appointed to a conference committee to reconcile the two versions into one bill that goes back to each house for approval.

Those few people on a conference committee have a lot of power. The other members of the legislature have very little in that circumstance. And the public has still less.

In a one-house body, we don’t need conference committees because all the policymaking happens in one room: the legislative chamber. That’s pretty much an ideal setup for accessibility and accountability.

Equally important, our Legislature is nonpartisan. We don’t elect senators by party and, even more significantly, the Legislature is not organized by party. The political party with the majority does not automatically control the leadership and proceedings and lawmaking. Instead of the party telling senators what positions to take and how to vote, all senators have their own voice. Senators can listen to their constituents and their own consciences rather than knuckling under to party dictates.

The resulting policies tend to be more thoughtful and nuanced, to take into account real people and their needs and desires instead of just party doctrine. George Norris said parties in the Legislature just got in the way of government by the people. Why would we want to return to a system like that?

One last thing: On a practical level, adding another legislative house and configuring it on the basis of contiguous counties is unconstitutional. States may not configure legislative chambers on the basis of geography instead of population. Two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1960s made that abundantly clear.

The addition of a second house would not increase representation for rural areas. It would simply add a somewhat smaller but otherwise “duplicate” house – not to mention more personnel and more costs – to the process of legislating.

We Nebraskans should hang on to our one-of-a-kind nonpartisan, one-house Legislature, not because George Norris had all the answers or simply because we want to be unique or just because we want to honor history.

Far better than the traditional partisan, two-house structure, our system lets us, the people, be the government – the ultimate goal in a democracy. We should hang onto the nonpartisan Unicameral because it works. For all of us.

Charlyne Berens is of Lincoln, Neb., is the author of two books about Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature: “One House” and “Power to the People.” She is professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. She wrote this commentary for the Nebraska Examiner, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.