Growing up, I hated everything about living in Nebraska, including the fact that its college sports teams went by the name “Cornhuskers.”
By extension, I hated the fact that the state had a single-house legislature, otherwise known as the Unicameral.
What I did not realize then, but know now, is that this configuration of state government, unique to Nebraska, was the brainchild of U.S. Senator George Norris, dubbed widely in the press at the time of his electoral loss in 1942 as “the last of the progressive Republicans.”
He was a staunch supporter of The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, despite being from the opposing party. He was pro union and was widely credited with the creation of the Tennesee Valley Authority. He is also credited with the fact that Nebraska has another distinction among the states that lasts until the present day: it is the only state where every single one of the residential electric, sewer and gas utilities is publicly-owned. That last part is remarkable in a state where the Republican Party has been so firmly in control for so long.
Norris was a visionary, and I now see how having one, non-partisan house of the legislature, in which there are nominally no Republicans and no Democrats, allows our Unicameral to get some progressive-ish legislation passed that would otherwise be impossible if a state party was in control of how people voted on the floor of the legislature. (Norris tried to start a movement whereby all state legislatures were one house, but obviously that didn’t work out.)
Votes for leadership in the Unicameral, including the Speaker, are by secret ballot.
Being well-liked and respected are therefore more important to the process of choosing a Speaker than is having the loudest mouth, the most strident agenda, and having a state party apparatus behind you. This means that Democrats and Republicans alike are free to vote their conscience, which they often do.
This means that, in a state where statewide offices are increasingly held by Republican extremists, the Speaker of the Unicameral very often tends be a more thoughtful kind of person because bombastic types tend to not be the most popular people in the Unicameral. This is not always the case, but it is true more often than you might imagine. And since state parties — and I include Republicans and Democrats in this — can often be beholden to corporate interests who have donated the most money to the party, this kind of corporate influence on legislation can be lessened under a Unicameral system.
Which is why, of course, Republicans in Nebraska hate both the one-house system AND the secret ballots for the legislative leadership. They are trying once again in this legislative session to change both.
Nebraska officially called its non-partisan unicameral for the first time in 1937, but a proposal by one conservative senator seeks to upend that longstanding tradition and embrace the partisan divide he says has always been present.
To State Sen. Steve Erdman, the unicameral is non-partisan in name only.
“Everyone assumes that but we’re not supposed to talk about it,” Erdman, from District 47, said. “It’s like it’s the elephant in the room.”
So Erdman is seeking to amend Nebraska’s constitution, turning the unicameral legislature into a bicameral legislature with a senate and a house. He said Nebraska’s legislature has underperformed neighboring bicameral systems.
“If the unicameral is so wonderful and we’ve accomplished so much, why are our taxes so high,” Erdman said.
And he said the body’s nature is already very partisan.
“There’s been a level of partisanship ever since it was created,” Erdman said. “And as time went by, the beliefs of the two parties have changed, have divided more than they were, so it looks like there’s more of a division.”
But an outspoken opponent of Erdman’s proposal–state senator Danielle Conrad–says that the legislature shouldn’t embrace the divides even in the face of what she referred to as “creeping partisanship.”
“This is not how we do things in Nebraska,” Conrad, from District 46, said. “This is not how we have organized ourselves as a government. And instead of just casually joining into partisan shenanigans, we as elected leaders should fiercely honor our oath and protect our institutions.”
Conrad says the official non-partisanship is a tradition worth preserving.
“It works,” she said. “It helps to keep the focus on the business of the people, not partisan special interest.”
Erdman says his proposal would give more power to rural areas, with a senator for every three counties, which would come out to 31 senators. There would be a 63-person house of representatives apportioned by population.
The creation of the U.S. Senate in the drafting of the Constitution was exactly this sort of trade-off between direct democracy — whomever has the most votes, wins — and artificially inflating the power of rural Americans vs. the cities. In some ways it made sense in the 1700s, mostly as a way to get rural buy-in for the nascent federal government and the Constitution.
But it is not needed in Nebraska and would only serve to amplify the power of the Republican Party and rural areas at the expense of Omaha and Lincoln, where most of the state’s residents live.
Conservative forces have not had much luck over the many years they have been trying to change the one-house system. Let’s hope they fail again this legislative session.