The Great Nebraska Unicameral Committee Mystery

Have you ever wondered why Nebraska, among the reddest of the red states and seemingly a bastion of all things conservative, has tax rates (income and property) that are among the highest per capita in the nation? Were you surprised last year when Medicare expansion legislation was defeated here in Nebraska by a mere whisker (and then only because of a massive grass-roots uprising at the last minute)? In a state that sports 579,000 Republican voters to only 371,000 Democrat voters, does it puzzle you as to why a simple and sensible law requiring voters to present some sort of photographic identification at the polls has been defeated in the Unicameral year after year? If Huskerland is so effusively conservative, why do such corrosively liberal public policies prevail more often than not?

Fret no further, gentle reader. There is an explanation for these and many other manifestations of pernicious progressivism where none should exist … and it begins in the rules under which the Unicameral selects committee members and, more importantly, committee chairpersons.

Let’s review a little state-house civics (bear with me … this is the part that we all slept through in high school civics class):

  • Committees are where the bulk of the legislative sausage is made, i.e., ideas are vetted, costs/benefits are weighed, research is carried out, hearings are held and eventually the legislation is either moved along to the entire assembly or killed. The Unicameral boasts 14 of these “standing” committees, as well as 4 “select” committees that direct and oversee all administrative aspects of the legislative process. Additionally, there can be “special” committees established for specific purposes such as performance audits, building maintenance, and the dissemination for information. Currently there are around six of these.
  • The most important of the select committees for the purposes of this discussion is the redundantly named “Committee on Committees.” The C of C is made up of 12 members, 4 from each federal legislative district, who are selected by their respective caucuses, i.e., all the members from their legislative district. The entire legislature then selects a chairperson for the C on C from among the twelve. The C of C then proceeds to handpick members for each of the 14 “standing” committees and presents its choices to the entire house, which then approves the C of C’s selections. Once approved the entire legislature then elects chairpersons for each of the committees. Note that this is done by secret ballot so we have no way of knowing who voted for whom.

And the committee member and committee chairperson selection is where it begins to get interesting. Michael Dulaney, author of “A HISTORY AND DESCRIPTION OF THE NEBRASKA LEGISLATIVE PROCESS”, has a laughably understated way of putting it; he says “It is not unusual for some “politicking” or “jockeying” to occur even before the committee meets in order to secure positions on certain committees”, which is a bit like saying “during yesterday’s thunderstorm, a few raindrops were noted.”

So what happens?

Most citizen-legislators will, upon arriving in Lincoln for the start of the session, quite naturally be interested in obtaining committee assignments on those committees which will likely deal with issues important to the constituents in their districts, so well-intentioned senators from the 3rd District, for example, will compete vigorously for seats on Agriculture, or Natural Resources, or perhaps Transportation & Telecommunications. Point is, many senators horse-trade their votes for committee chairmanships (don’t forget – the whole legislature selects the chairpersons) in order to be appointed to committee(s) of their choice.

Soooo … if the Committee on Committees is predominantly of one particular political persuasion it is easy to see what then occurs;  you guessed it – a preponderance of committee chairpeople of that same political bent. And remember, Committee chairpersons have virtually autocratic control over what legislation does and doesn’t get approved.

It’s pretty simple once we follow the mouse through the maze.

Just to illustrate the point further, consider the legislative session of 2014 (ended last April). The unicameral was composed of 49 supposed “nonpartisan” (muhahahahaha …) senators, of whom 30 were registered Republicans and 17 were registered Democrats, and two (Brad Ashford and Ernie Chambers) were said to be “Independent”. I think we can all agree that Ashford can comfortably fit into the Democrat ranks (especially now), and who knows what Ernie is – maybe an “Ernie-tarian.”

So, on the basis of a 30 – 18 member majority (with Ernie out there browsing in the fringe somewhere), we would expect that Republicans would have a comfortable, or even a hurtling majority of the committee chairmanships, right? Guess again, grasshopper.

Of the 14 standing committees, 9 are chaired by Dems (counting Ashford, who nobody with an IQ above that of a rutabaga would call an Independent), while only 5 are run by Republicans. Actually, it’s much worse than that – at least 2 of the Republican chairs (Hadley and Campbell) are notorious RINO’s, and tend to support, and often vote for, Democrat/liberal initiatives.

                      2013-2014 Unicameral Committee Chairmanships


So, in what the rest of the world thinks is a red, red state, we have liberals and progressives running 11 of the 14 legislative committees – which means that the vast majority of bills that ever get considered, let alone voted upon,  are only those of which the Dem/lib/progs approve.

How can this be? Simple – Legislative Districts 1 and 2 (think Lincoln and Omaha) tend to have more state senators per square inch (more population), and a much larger proportion of those senators tend to be of a liberal mindset (than the 3rd District). Since the C on C members are selected by the three district caucuses, it becomes a relatively simple matter to pack the Committee on Committees with libs (usually something like 8 to 4).  The Dem-heavy C on C then proceeds to dole out sought-after committee seats in exchange for votes for their (Dem/lib/prog) candidates for the chairmanships. Isn’t politics wonderful?

And what can we, the Great Unwashed and Uninformed, do about this particular brand of rascality? Not much, except to let them know that we are aware of their scamming ways and we will be watching and waiting at the next election. They won’t care, of course, since they know we will almost certainly have rushed off in pursuit of some other sparkly or another long before the next election day.

Every time I drive by the Capitol Building and read the inscription over the main door that says “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness of the Citizen”, I have to suppress a chuckle.

Will this shell game be repeated in the upcoming legislative session (January 2015)? Bet on it.


About Ed Stevens

retired geezer; paleo-crypto-apocalypto-reactio-conservative; I have no interest in and no time for facile "compromise" or "coming together" - the difference between right and wrong is pretty clear. I'd rather be carried from the field on my shield than wind up polishing the armor of my enemies.
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4 Responses to The Great Nebraska Unicameral Committee Mystery

  1. Becky Wilkins says:

    Thank you for educating me, Ed. I appreciate your knowledge and your presentation of the way things are. I just hate the way things are!

  2. Joe Maul says:

    Thanks Ed. I wish more people actually paid attention. As one who writes a quarterly estimated tax check, I know most people simply don’t care about what they pay, as it just comes out their paycheck every week, and they only care about what’s left over for them. If everyone had to cut their own check to pay those taxes, they would wake up and see how out of control it really is.
    PS. I’m starting to like the sound of Susi for State Senate!

  3. Steve W says:

    This has been reported on in Nebraska media, but I guess people don’t pay attention.

    I don’t know if this analysis is complete, where you write, “the vast majority of bills that ever get considered, let alone voted upon, are only those of which the Dem/lib/progs approve.”

    That fails to consider that bills are voted up/down by the entire committee, not simply the chairman. And as your numbers indicate, Republicans are the majority on those committees. And those bills then have to pass three votes by a Republican dominated body, and by signed into law by a Republican governor.

    Committee chairs certainly have influence on what bills come forward, but perhaps you’ve oversimplified that.

    • Ed Stevens says:

      Fair point(s), Steve … but let’s not forget that the committee chairs decide when and if a bill referred to their committee is (or is not) acted upon by the committee. An awful lot of legislation has died (or been smothered) in committee – some good, some not so much … so it really doesn’t matter if the committee has a majority of Republicans or not if a vote never happens. The committee chairmen have a LOT of influence, primarily because of the parliamentary authority granted them … that’s why so many want to sit in the big chair.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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