Unicam Focus

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Lesson 3: The Unicameral - The Institution

The purpose of Lesson 3 is to introduce students to institutional characteristics of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. The lesson outlines the unicameral nature of the body, including a brief history of its development. It also explains the body's nonpartisanship and leadership structure.

The Development of the Unicameral

Most state or national legislatures in the United States are bicameral legislatures. That is, each legislature is made up of two separate bodies. These two bodies are two independent groups of representatives who meet in separate chambers, and who often serve for different lengths of time. They may even work on very different bills, which is another name for the solutions they suggest to public problems. However, even though they may work on different bills at any one time, the approval of both houses is usually necessary in order for a bill to become law.

The state of Nebraska is the only state in the country that does not have a bicameral legislature. Instead, the Nebraska Legislature has only one house - called the Unicameral - that serves the citizens of the state. Representatives from the Unicameral are called senators.

The Nebraska Legislature has not always been a unicameral. Until 1935, Nebraska had a bicameral legislature like many other states in the nation. However, with the help of U.S. Sen. George W. Norris the state of Nebraska made an historical change.

Norris argued that a unicameral legislature would use a more fair and efficient system of lawmaking than the bicameral legislature currently in existence. Additionally, he argued that a small, unicameral legislature would be less expensive and would do a better job at representing the citizens of Nebraska than the larger two-house body. The citizens of Nebraska agreed with Norris and voted to change the structure of the Legislature in 1934.

Since 1937, Nebraska's unicameral legislatur - the smallest state legislature in the countr- has consisted of 49 senators from across the state who each serve for four years. Each of the 49 senators comes from a legislative district, which is the small area of the state that the senator represents and serves in the unicameral. Each district contains about 35,000 citizens. Legislators receive $12,000 per year for serving in the Legislature, which meets for 90 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. In order to be a state senator, a Nebraskan must be at least 21 years old, be a registered voter, and live in their district for at least one year before running for election.

Video

Interviewee: Former Sen. David Landis

"The Nebraska Unicameral" examines unicameralism in the Nebraska Legislature, including the role of U.S. Sen. George Norris and public opinion regarding this one-house institution.

Critical Thinking Exercise

U.S. Sen. George Norris believed that a unicameral legislature would cost less to the taxpayers of Nebraska and would work more efficiently than a two-house legislature.

  • Why would he have made this argument?
  • How could the Unicameral be cheaper and more efficient than a two-house legislature?

Nonpartisanship and Leadership

Because of the sheer number of representatives in most legislatures, representatives must figure out ways to make things run smoothly inside the chamber. The two most common ways to organize a legislature are through the use of political parties and leadership positions. A political party is not the type of 'party' you might be thinking of. Rather, it is a group of individuals who hold similar political opinions and work to turn these opinions into public policy. Members of the same political party tend to vote the same way and even elect their own leaders, who often serve as leaders within a legislative body. In addition to these party leaders, a legislative body may elect some of its own representatives to a set of leadership positions. These leaders may decide which committees a representative will be a member of and which bills to put on the legislative agenda. Additionally, they may suggest to other representatives whether or not to support a particular bill.

However, just as the Nebraska Unicameral is unique in having only one house, it is unique in another respect as well. The Unicameral is a nonpartisan legislature. There are no official political parties within the Nebraska Legislature, and there is no indication of a candidate's political party on the election ballot. However, the Nebraska Unicameral does have a leadership structure, although this structure is much smaller than those found in other state legislatures. First, the Unicameral has a Speaker. The Speaker of the Unicameral is actually a senator who is elected to take care of the Legislature's procedural tasks. These involve setting the daily agenda and scheduling the 90 or 60 workdays for the legislative session. Second, the Unicameral has an Executive Board, whose chairperson is elected by the senators, that oversees the Legislature's personnel and services.

Finally, senators are divided into committees - small groups of legislators who meet together to make decisions about legislation, decisions about legislative processes, or administrative decisions. The type of committee you are probably most familiar with is called a standing committee. There are 14 standing committees in the Unicameral, which review and hold public hearings on specific types of legislation. There is a standing Committee on Agriculture, for example, that deals with legislation designed to help farmers. Having committees helps to keep the work of the Unicameral organized. Each committee is lead by a chairperson, who sets the agenda for the committee and makes sure that debate and testimony on pieces of legislation runs smoothly.

Critical Thinking Exercise

Visit the Unicameral's Committees web page to see a list of the 14 standing committees of the Unicameral legislature. Which committee would review each of the following bills?

  • A bill that plans a new highway
  • A bill that helps keep you healthy
  • A bill that explains what you should learn in your social studies class

What Can I Do?

The home of the Nebraska Legislature is the Nebraska State Capitol, which was built in 1935 by an architect named Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. The Capitol is over 430 feet in length on each side, and features a 400-foot tower topped with a golden dome. For more information on the Nebraska State Capitol, visit Capitol.org.