On Unicameralism

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"The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen."


"Under our federal system, each state is free to determine the structure and nature of its own government, subject only to the vague and unimportant provision for a 'republican form of government' in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution. Even with this latitude, there are more similarities than dissimilarities among the fifty state governments, this high degree of uniformity being fastened on them by history and tradition. In addition, major alterations in, or departures from, these accepted governmental institutions are rare. Nebraska, however, did make such a major change in the 1930s when it adopted a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature. This question is often raised as to how and why this occurred. It was not sudden.

Actually, there have been momentary spurts of interest in unicameralism in a number of states since just before World War I. Governors in some states have recommended it; in others, various 'good government'groups and constitutional conventions have given it serious consideration; it has even been voted on by the people in a few states. The most recent stirring of interest grew out of the 'one man, one vote'requirements in the apportionment of both houses of state legislatures; the supreme court decisions effectively undermined the 'federal analogy' supporting the argument for a second house in state government. All of this interest flared only briefly and soon disappeared - except in Nebraska."

"Nebraska's legislature is unique among all state legislatures in the nation because it has a single house. It wasn't always a unicameral, however. The state had a senate and a house of representatives for 68 years before Nebraskans voted to get rid of half of their state legislature in 1934. The change had not come easily. Rep. J.N. Norton of Osceola was the first to consistently advocate for a unicameral legislature in Nebraska. But Nebraskans rejected his and similar proposals several times before interest in reining in state spending peaked during the Great Depression. The cause was also helped by the fact that two other popular proposals were on the ballot that year: local option on prohibition and legalized pari-mutuel betting. Also integral to the success of the unicameral amendment was the involvement of a longtime U.S. Senator, who led a zealous petition campaign on its behalf.

Sen. George Norris, a 'New Deal Republican' who settled in McCook, wore out two sets of tires while he drove throughout the state campaigning for the measure. He said the two-house system was outdated, inefficient and unnecessary.

The bicameral system was modeled after the British Parliament, Norris said, which is made up of the House of Commons, with representatives elected by the people, and the House of Lords, with its aristocratic members appointed by the king.

'...The constitutions of our various states are built upon the idea that there is but one class. If this be true, there is no sense or reason in having 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 one-house system differs little from most city, county and school district governing bodies. Canadian provinces operate with single-house systems.

Norris' influence, the Depression and the other ballot issues summoned enough supporters for an overwhelming decision to make Nebraska's the only one-house legislature in the nation. The vote was 286,086 to 193,152 in favor of a unicameral system."

Select Bibliography:

The following books and/or articles discuss unicameralism from a historical perspective, including discussions of the unicameralism vs. bicameralism debate in the United States and pieces written during or just after the transformation of Nebraska's legislature to unicameralism. The bibliography within Robert D. Miewald's Nebraska Government and Politics (1984) was particularly helpful in compiling these titles.

The Constitution of the United States. 1789.

The Articles of Confederation. 1778.

Breckenridge, A. C. "Innovation in State Government: Origin and Development of Nebraska's Nonpartisan Unicameral Legislature." Nebraska History. Vol. 59. 1978. pg. 31-46.

Cherny, Robert W. Populism, Progressivism, and the Transformation of Nebraska Politics, 1885-1915. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Dobbins, Harry T. "Nebraska's One House Legislature - After Six Years." National Municipal Review. Vol. 30. 1941. pg. 511-514.

Engel, B.S. "Nebraska's New Unicameral System." Scholastic. January 5, 1935. pg. 15.

Green, Charles. "Nebraska Launches Unicameral." State Government. Vol. 10. 1937. pg. 3-5.

Green, Charles. "Nebraska's New Legislature Begins to Test a New Theory." Congressional Digest. Vol. 16. 1937. pg. 207-208.

Hamilton, Alexander. "The Same Subject Continued, Other Defects of the Present Confederation." Federalist Paper #22. 1787.

Johnson, Alvin W. The Unicameral Legislature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1938.

Lancaster, Lane. "Nebraska Considers a One-House Legislature." Current History. Vol. 41. 1935: 434-36.

Landis, David. "Norris, the Unicameral, and the Practicing Lawyer." The Nebraska Lawyer. August, 1998.

Madison, James. "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments." Federalist Paper #51. 1788.

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

Moschos, Demitrios and David Katsky. "Unicameralism and Bicameralism: History and Tradition." Boston University Law Review 45. 1965. pg. 250-70.

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

Senning, John P. "Nebraska Provides for a One-House Legislature." American Political Science Review. Vol. 29. 1935: pg. 69-74.

Senning, John P. The One House Legislature. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1937.

Senning, John P. "Nebraska's One-House Legislature." Southwestern Social Science Quarterly. Vol. 18. 1937. pg. 115-125.

Senning, John P. "One House, Two Sessions." National Municipal Review. Vol. 28. 1939. pg. 843-847.

Senning, John P. "Constitutional Essentials for a Unicameral Legislature." University of Kansas Law Review. Vol. 11. 1942. pg. 10-15.

Senning, John P. "Nebraska's First Unicameral Legislative Session." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 195. 1938. pg. 159-67.

Sheldon, A.E. "Unicameral Legislature." Nebraska History. Vol. 19. 1938. pg. 246-47.

Sittig, Robert F. "Unicameralism in Nebraska, 1936-1966." State Government. Vol. 40. 1967. pg. 38-41.

Summers, Harrison. Unicameral Legislatures. New York: H.W. Wilson. 1937.

"The Unicameral System of Legislation." Congressional Digest. Vol. 16. 1937. pg. 193-224.