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On Unicameralism

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The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.

The Nebraska Experience

The following selection is excerpted from "A Look at Your Unicameral," pg. 1-4 (Lincoln: Nebraska Legislative Council, published annually):

"A common question regarding unicameralism was how to preserve checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. Norris argued there would be checks and balances without a second house. The Supreme Court and the governor would rule on or veto measures deemed improper, he said. More importantly, the people would serve as a check upon the possible abuse of power by their elected officials with the right to vote and petition, Norris said. The Nebraska Unicameral would have easy-to-follow procedures and extend greater privileges to the press to allow for greater public awareness.

'Every act of the legislature and every act of each individual must be transacted in the spotlight of publicity,' Norris said.

In a one-house legislature, Norris said, no actions could be concealed as was commonly done in the conference committee of bicameral legislatures. Conference committees resolve differences when bills passed in both houses vary in content. In Nebraska, the appointed six-member committee met in secret and members' votes were not public record. Norris said these committees had too much power and could be influenced easily by lobbyists.

Once a bill came out of the conference committee, it could not be changed, only approved or rejected. If rejected, another committee had to be formed to work out the disagreements or the measure failed. Today in Nebraska, lawmakers may propose amendments and debate them outside of committee on the chamber floor.

Some say a two-house system with its conference committee prevents hasty legislation. But the unicameral system has safeguards against this possibility. Most bills must get a public hearing; five days must elapse between a bill's introduction and its passage; and bills can contain only one subject

[ Nebraska's legislature is also uniquely nonpartisan and has been so since the ratification of the 1934 unicameral amendment. ]

Implementation of the unicameral legislature in 1937 cut government costs for obvious reasons. Legislative membership went from 133 in the bicameral to 43 in the new single house - nearly a 70 percent reduction

Also, the one-house system was more efficient than its predecessor. The number of committees was pared down from 61 to 18, and 581 bills were introduced in 1937 as opposed to twice that many the previous session. The last bicameral session in 1935 ran 110 days, passed 192 bills and cost $202,593. The first unicameral session two years later ran 98 days, passed 214 bills and cost $103,445.

Movements for unicameralism have existed throughout the United States since the nation's independence. There were several pro-unicameral movements in the state before one finally succeeded. The same year Nebraska's unicameral legislature began operating, attempts in 21 other states to become one-house legislatures failed.

Such efforts waned until the 1960s when a Supreme Court ruling revived the movement. It ruled that both houses must be apportioned according to population, instead of one house according to population and the other house according to geographical lines.

The ruling raised doubts about the necessity of having two houses based on population, stirring many states to evaluate their own systems. Many states looked to Nebraska as a model of an effective one-house legislature. Those states included California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas. Nebraska officials visited many states to spread the word about unicameralism. Journalists and officials from other states also visited Nebraska.

The Unicameral's first clerk, Hugo Srb, predicted that lawmakers in other states would not want to legislate their own jobs out of existence. Despite the interest unicameralism has received over the years, Nebraska remains the only state with a unicameral legislature.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The following selection is excerpted from "A Look at Your Unicameral," pg. 2-3. (Lincoln: Nebraska Legislative Council,1994):

Advocates of the unicameral legislature say:

  • There is no reason for people to vote for representatives to two separate houses to serve the same purpose. "One man - one vote" has negated the original intent of having each house elected on a different basis.
  • The unicameral form simplifies bill passage. The process is more direct. Bills are more readily available for scrutiny by legislators and the public.
  • The Conference Committee, and inherent evil necessary for the operation of a bicameral system, is eliminated.
  • Lobbyists are less influential in the unicameral legislature because the lawmaking process is more public.
  • In a unicameral system, it is easier to achieve cooperation between executive and legislative branches.
  • A unicameral system is more economical.
  • A unicameral system offers greater responsibility to legislators.
  • Legislators are more accountable to the public and their constituency because their position is a matter of public record. They are not able to urge opposite positions within the other house.

Advocates of the bicameral legislature say:

  • A bicameral legislature provides for more careful and deliberate consideration of legislation. Action of the two houses required for passage prevents bills from being quickly passed under the sway of emotion.
  • Many of the charges of shifting responsibility are exaggerated and ill-founded. A legislator who continually fails to accept responsibility would not be reelected.
  • Objectionable lobbying is not the major problem in the bicameral legislature that it is often assumed to be. Lobbyists can more easily promote desired legislation where control is needed in only one house.
  • Although bicameral state legislatures are not perfect, it would be easier to correct their flaws than to change their structure.
  • Further consideration of legislation by a duly-elected body would assure more thoughtful action in passing bills.

Select Bibliography:

The following books and/or articles discuss unicameralism in Nebraska. The bibliography within Robert D. Miewald's Nebraska Government and Politics (1984) was particularly helpful in compiling these titles.

Aylsworth, Leon E. "Nebraska's Unicameral Saves Money for Taxpayers." National Municipal Review. Vol. 27. 1938. pg. 490-93.

Bigelow, Elizabeth, ed. Essays on Unicameralism. New York: National Municipal Leageue. 1972.

Breckenridge, A.C. One House or Two: Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature. Washington, D.C. Public Affairs Press. 1957.

Burdette, Franklin. "Legislative Conference Committees: Lessons from Nebraska's Bicameral Experience." State Government. Vol. 22. pg. 103-106.

Johnson, William E. "Unicameralism Works." State Government. Vol. 12. 1939. pg. 197-198, 207.

Carter, Edward. "The Unicameral Legislative System." Florida Law Journal. Vol. 21. 1947. pg. 112-115.

Cohan, Paul. "Sixty Years with One Chamber and No Parties." Stateline Midwest. March, 1997.

Davies, Thomas. "The Nebraska Unicameral Legislature." American Bar Association Journal. Vol. 38. 1952. pg. 240-42.

Dobbins, Harry T. "A Unicameral Legislature." Quarterly of the American Interprofessional Institute. Vol. 13. Summer, 1939. pg. 15-19.

Dobbins, Harry T. "Legislative Procedure under the Unicameral System." University of Kansas City Law Review. Vol. 11. 1942. pg. 31-37.

Miewald, Robert D., ed. Nebraska Government and Politics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1984.

Nebraska Blue Book. Lincoln: Nebraska Legislative Council. Published bienially.

O'Donnell, Patrick. "A Unicameral Legislature." Journal of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries. Spring, 1996.

Riley, William. "Nonpartisan Unicameral - Benefits, Defects, Re-examined." Nebraska Law Review. Vol. 52. 1973. pg. 377-403.

Robak, Kim. "The Nebraska Unicameral and Its Lasting Benefits." Nebraska Law Review. Vol. 76: 791. 1997.

Sittig, Robert. "Unicameralism and the Nebraska Experience." Parliamentary Journal. Vol. 21. October, 1980. pg. 38-43.

Srb, Hugo F. "The Unicameral Legislature - A Successful Innovation." Nebraska Law Review. Vol. 40. 1961. pg. 626-33.

Wesser, Robert. "George W. Norris: The Unicameral Legislature and the Progressive Ideal." Nebraska History. Vol. 45. 1965. pg. 309-321.

The following titles were published by U.S. Sen. George W. Norris during and after his campaign for the unicameral system in Nebraska:

"One Branch Legislature for States Would Improve Results." New York Times, January 28, 1923, Section 8, pg. 1.

"The Model Legislature." Congressional Record. February 27, 1934. Vol. 78. pg. 3276-80.

"Nebraska's One-House Legislative System." Congressional Record. February 7, 1935. Vol. 79. pg. 1635-37.

"Only One House." State Government 7. 1934. pg. 209-210.

"One-House Legislature for More Efficient Legislation." Literary Digest. October 13, 1934. pg. 8.

"The One-House Legislature." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 181. 1935. pg. 50-58.

"The One-House Legislature." National Municipal Review 24. 1935. pg. 87-89, 99.