Unicam Focus

Return Lesson Index

Return Lesson Index

Lesson 7: Legislators and Representation - Issue Complexity and Compromise

Lesson 7 explores the effects of issue complexity and legislative compromise on legislative decision-making. The lesson explains the technical and complex nature of legislation and explores the role of bargaining and coalition-building in lawmaking.


Legislators, as we have learned, are often contacted by a number of constituents who seek to affect the decisions that they make about bills. The fact that constituents often have very different views about issues can make the decision-making process a difficult one. Lawmaking is an inherently controversial activity, as most issues have a number of different sides and may challenge the political, economic, or religious beliefs of a population. While a bill may be good for one group of citizens, another group may be hurt in the process.

The complexity of legislative issues adds to the difficulty that many representatives already have in making decisions. To citizens, legislative decisions may seem like simple "yes" or "no" choices. However, legislative remedies to public problems are rarely simple. Before deciding to pass a law, legislators must understand the laws, or statutes, already in existence, the effect of the proposed law on citizens, and how much the law will cost to enact. Legislators must also consider the constitutionality of the proposal: Is the bill in accordance with the rights and protections guaranteed under the Nebraska Constitution?

Because lawmaking requires such a great deal of knowledge about public policies and government, legislators often become specialists in a particular issue area - like tax or education issues. An individual legislator often sponsors and supports legislation about issues that they are both most familiar with and care the most about. However, even if a legislator cares very deeply about an issue, a lack of resources, namely money, may limit his or her ability to enact certain laws. In addition to the number of technical and political concerns that a legislator must consider when making decisions, he or she can only enact laws that can be paid for by the state.

Finally, consider how many different issues the legislature deals with in any one session, from agriculture and education to transportation and the environment. As society becomes more complex, legislators are asked to deal with an increasingly large number of issues. For example, the addition of Internet access to many classrooms around Nebraska has forced legislators to consider a number of new issues: restrictions on the type of web sites that young people can visit; regulations about the speed at which you download pages; and the cost of adding Internet access to schools across the state. Disagreement about what the role of government should be in citizens' lives - beliefs that stem from an individual's ideology - makes this increase in legislative responsibility controversial.

Critical Thinking Exercise

  • Do you think legislative issues are more or less complex for citizens than they are for legislators?
  • What factors may make issues more complex for citizens?
  • What factors may make public policy issues less complex?
The Need for Compromise

With this complexity in mind, legislators must begin the task of getting the bill through the legislative process. Remember, a representative is only one member of a legislative body. Bills must receive a majority of votes in order to become laws, so legislators must work with their colleagues to secure a bill's passage. In order to achieve this, legislators must sometimes compromise. Legislators must work together throughout the process to develop a final bill that retains its original purpose while meeting the needs and concerns of other legislators. In other words, legislators must find common ground.

The need to compromise is an inherent part of our majoritarian system. In order for a bill to become a law, a sponsor must gain the approval of at least 50 percent of his or her colleagues. Since many legislators may oppose a bill or some of its sections, a bill's sponsor must be constantly aware of how compromises can be developed. Because of this, the legislative decision-making process involves not only the final decision on a bill, but also decisions about bills that are made throughout the lawmaking process.

One of the most common ways that legislators can reach a compromise is through bargaining. In some instances, legislators work with each other in order to achieve their legislative goals. Senator A might offer to support Senator B's bill, as long as he accepts a small change to the wording of the bill. In order for Senator B to accept this change, he might request that Senator A make a small change to her amendment as well. If both senators agree to the changes, they will have compromised to create a final bill that is slightly different from its original version, but now has the support of a larger number of senators.

Members of the public and the press often have very negative opinions of political compromise. They seem to think that politicians who compromise are "giving up" on what they believe in just to get a bill passed. However, given the complexity of most laws (and of the lawmaking process itself), compromise is often the best way that legislators can ensure that the bills they are passing are good for the entire state. The process of bargaining helps legislators to understand how bills might be improved, or how they might be harmful to citizens. Compromise allows legislators to pass legislation that respects the needs of all citizens.


Interviewee: Former Speaker Kermit Brashear

"The Importance of Compromise" explores the practice of compromising in the Nebraska Legislature.

Former Speaker Kermit Brashear discuss the importance of compromise to the legislative process.

Critical Thinking Exercise

Think about a situation in which you had to compromise with a family member or friend in order to reach a solution to a problem.

  • How did you work out a compromise?
What can I do?

Since public policy problems can be so complex, there are offices in the Unicameral devoted to researching solutions to these problems. To learn more about the offices that conduct research at the Unicameral, visit the Legislative Research Office.