One House Legislature … One Horse Government


George W. Norris

Nebraskans are a peculiar lot; perhaps because we lack soaring mountains, or miles of white sand beaches, or even forested expanses (Halsey and J. Sterling Morton notwithstanding), we are obliged to take pride in somewhat less splashy features – like the Sand Hills, bazillions of cranes that defecate their way across our state each spring, and, of course, our unicameral legislature (“The only one in the US, don’tcha know”).

Well, I have lived in the Sand Hills; you can take my word for it that they’re nothing special – unless you happen to own a couple hundred thousand acres, and even then it can be a long time till spring. As for the cranes … thing is, once you’ve watched them “dancing” for ten or fifteen minutes, that’s about it – that’s pretty much all they’ve got. So it’s back to town for happy hour at the Dew Drop Inn.

Which brings us to the Unicameral. As every Nebraska pre-schooler knows, the single body legislature was invented, exalted and implemented by George W. Norris, super-senator and apotheosis of all things Progresssively political (pun intended). Well, it turns out that this isn’t 100% true – but more about that in a minute. Sadly for St. George’s legacy, the lace on the Unicameral bonnet is becoming more worn and threadbare with each passing legislative session.

Even though Norris has sucked up all the credit for more than 70 years, the real heavy lifting for the unicameral concept here in Huskerland was done by one John N. Norton, a Polk County Democrat pol, who unsuccessfully pushed the notion at least a half dozen times in the teens and twenties, using every nomothetic maneuver in the book from constitutional amendments to bills in the (then) bicameral legislature, to public petition drives. All failed, some more spectacularly than others. Good to know there was at least a semblance of common sense even back then.

By now the perceptive reader will be asking what the attraction of a single house lawmaking body was for those hoary old collectivist types. Good question, Sparky – but the answers are not easily discerned; perhaps Norris et al truly believed the unicameral approach would provide better lawmaking, hence better government (though I will show below just how mistaken this idea is). More likely, I think, is the fact that liberals, even antediluvian liberals (remember – Democrats are prototypical liberals, and Progressives, of whom Norris was the Grand Poobah, are just heavily ruralized Democrats) believe at a primordial level that the path to power is open only to those who direct and control the legislative process. And control is most easily accomplished when the process

a) involves as few participants as possible,

b) is not subject to oversight by external interests or authority (such as political parties),

c) can be conducted with as little transparency as possible, and

d) makes it easy for members to cloak their true motivations.

If you’re paying attention, you should have noticed that I just described our small, nonpartisan Unicameral to the proverbial “T”.

No one will ever make the mistake of calling George W. Norris a deep thinker; in fact, reference is repeatedly made in both his autobiography [Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris] and Richard Lowitt’s three-volume biography of Norris’s disdain for political philosophy – a subject he viewed as silly cerebrating, bearing little relationship to the real world. Norris was a thoroughgoing pragmatist and never ventured too far out of the shallow end of the intellectual pool, which helps to explain why he went so far wrong with his reasoning in support of a single house legislature.

Norris listed a number of “reasons” positing the superiority of the unicameral; I will deal with each of these in turn.

  • Smaller (fewer members) was better, i.e., cheaper (fewer salaries, less operational expense, etc.), and less duplication of effort (he said). While it is undeniable that 43 members (the number originally set in 1937) cost less than 133 (the number of members of the pre-1937 bicameral), it is by no means clear that the value of the “product” (legislation) as measured in dollars spent per unit of benefit is enhanced. In fact, there is persuasive evidence that the reverse is true (see, for example, Dr. James Rogers’s excellent article in Creighton Law Review, Vol. 33, entitled “Unicameral Legislative Systems: A Positive Theoretic and Historical Analysis”). That report states, in part, “While unicameralism may carry with it some benefits – most notably in the form of (modest) cost savings from the elimination of one legislative chamber – there are no discernable [sic], constitutionally relevant process advantages that unicameralism confers that could offset the process deficiencies that unicameralism introduces.”
  • Norris claimed that the bicameral model was copied from the British model of parliament, i.e., Commons and Peers, and as such was inappropriate for Americans since the social, political and economic bases for the English two house system do not exist in the United States. He argued further that state mimicry of a federal system (which is/was bicameral) is out of place since it was adopted solely as a compromise between large and small states – a situation clearly not applicable to a single state. Both points are valid if we assume the premises are valid – but that is a BIG if. The Founders had little if any reason to emulate the political system of a country with whom they had just fought a war. As Rogers points out, the Founders “adopted bicameralism in spite of the British example rather than because of the example. Further, the claim that U.S. bicameralism is modeled on British bicameralism ignores the fundamental organizational differences distinguishing the two types of bicameralism.” Moreover, historian Marc Kruman has concluded, after an extensive study of Revolutionary-era legislative models, that “Americans of the founding era rejected the notion that the Senate should represent property and the house, persons.” Speaking to Norris’s second point (that the states copied the federal Congressional bicameral model), it is simply wrong, since the original state constitutions that featured bicameral models were written before the 1787 Constitution was even drafted, so it is difficult to see how they “copied” it. Also pertinent is the fact that prior to 1787, when the nation was operating under the Articles of Confederation, the national congress was unicameral, so it is obvious that the states selected the bicameral model in spite of the national unicameral body. So, again to quote Rogers, “Norris attacked a form of bicameralism that simply had not existed in the U.S. States.
  • Norris contended that second legislative chambers were basically aristocratic, non-democratic institutions; in other words he conflated British parliamentary bicameralism (“Commons” vs “Lords”) with true “republican” bicameralism as found in the US, in which the same electors elect the members of both houses. Again, he was operating under false premises.
  • Next, Norris despised Conference Committees (committees appointed to reconcile differing versions of a bill between the two houses of a bicameral body), charging that they were secretive, offered no records of their proceedings and were not subject to oversight by the full legislative body. In response, let me quote at length from Rogers: “First, while Norris insisted that conference committees are a necessary evil for bicameral systems, the truth is quite the opposite. There are any number of alternative reconciliation mechanisms for bicameral disagreements that do not involve conference committees. In fact, the New Jersey legislature, for example, has not used a conference committee since 1973, and 34 of the 52 national bicameral legislatures do not use conference committees to reconcile bicameral disagreements. Further, contrary to textbook descriptions of ‘how a bill becomes law,’ few bills actually go to conference committees. For example, of the 301 bills enacted by one chamber of the last Nebraska bicameral legislature in 1935, only 26 (8.6 percent) went to a conference committee. The numbers are similar for other states and at the national level”. And, I would add, continue to be similar to this day.
  • Another complaint of Norris against bicameralism was that it tended to “diminish electoral responsiveness”, claiming that two legislative chambers so complicated the electoral process that voters became confused and were apt to vote in unpredictable and contrary ways. It is difficult to give credence to this criticism since voters seemed to be able to keep track of several Representatives, two Senators, a President and a multitude of state and local level officials, all of whom hold positions of influence over policies that affect their lives and welfare. Exactly how having an extra state Senator or two is so burdensome to voters is never really addressed the Norris.

Notably, Norris completely failed to take note of perhaps the most serious defect of unicameralism in state legislatures – that of its injurious nature with regard to the separation of powers doctrine. When legislative review is lessened (which is certainly the case in a unicameral body) then the separation of powers doctrine demands that a more rigorous judicial review is called for, as well as an enhanced ability for review/oversight of intended legislation by the people, the so-called “second body” here in Nebraska. No significant enlargement of either of these faculties is obvious following the adoption of the unicameral approach.

It is worthy of mention that Norris’s campaign for unicameralism is also directly and blatantly contrary to the ideas espoused and promoted by James Madison (a pretty fair political theorist) in Federalist 10 and 51. In #10, Madison explicates the benefits of having a larger, rather than a smaller, legislative body; he says “… as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried ….” He then presses the case for a divided legislative branch in #51, stating “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”

And finally, we must ask ourselves if any detectable advantage accrues from utilizing the unicameral model as compared with the bicameral. An appropriate measure of such comparison is the degree to which each produces “constitutionally reasonable” law, i.e., which system is most likely to produce legislation which is able to withstand judicial review. Dr. Rogers has developed positive theoretic models comparing legislative processes, and has provided convincing evidence that the “ends and means of legislation are more constitutionally suspect when a product of a unicameral legislature than when they are a product of a bicameral legislature.” I will not give a detailed account here of Rogers’ modeling techniques but interested parties should investigate them at the reference cited above. I am not trained in the law, but a couple of years of graduate study in sciences have provided me with a working knowledge of acceptable statistical modeling techniques – and Rogers’ work is, for me, quite solid.

In summary, it seems clear, at least to this observer, that Norris sold the State of Nebraska at the very best a pig in a poke, and, at worst, a dangerously defective idea. In my next post, I will take up the other half of Norris’s folly, that is, his devotion to “nonpartisanship” and show how it has damaged our politics, and thus, our public policy, as well as offer some suggestions toward improving the legislative process here in Nebraska.

Be well.


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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