A legislative branch like no other: Nebraska Unicameral remains a unique part of nation's political system

The state of Nebraska long ago chose a different model for its legislature, a single-chamber legislature that remains unlike any other in the United States.

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 2: February 2011

A senate, a house of representatives, majority and minority caucuses and partisanship leadership structures — these are some of the common features of state legislatures across the country.

From coast to coast and in almost every state, bicameral legislatures are the American norm, with one noteworthy exception here in the Midwest.

The state of Nebraska long ago chose a different model, a single-chamber legislature that remains unlike any other in the United States.

But it wasn’t always so.

In choosing a single-chamber legislature, the citizens of Nebraska actually voted to eliminate the state’s then 68-year-old house of representatives, a remarkable example of government downsizing that has never been matched elsewhere.

A reflection of the Progressive Movement that fueled a wave of government reforms early last century, Nebraska’s decision to establish a unicameral legislature was anything but sudden.

Almost 20 years after the idea first surfaced, and after several previous attempts to implement it had failed, Nebraskans voted in 1934 to amend the state Constitution and establish the nation’s first unicameral legislature.

The historic change was driven in part by the relentless advocacy of U.S. Sen. George Norris, a ProgressiveRepublican who believed that states were ill-served by the usual bicameral legislative model. Another factor was growing concern over the rising cost of government in the midst of the Great Depression. A single chamber, proponents argued, would be more efficient and less expensive than the familiar two-house legislature.

Norris and others also believed that a one-house legislature would be more transparent, that its members would be more accountable to voters for their actions, and that it would cure a significant flaw in bicameral systems by eliminating the need for conference committees, which too often acted in secret and without sufficient checks on their power.

Critics of the unicameral option argued, among other things, that a two-house system ensures more careful deliberation of proposed legislation and that the single-chamber model would sacrifice desirable checks and balances within the legislative process.

Those arguments, though, were countered by proponents who said a mix of internal legislative procedures, such as a requirement that a proposal be considered and approved multiple times before final passage, and checks from the other branches of government were sufficient.

Following voter approval of the proposed constitutional amendment, the legislature was reorganized in 1935, and when the new Unicameral met for the first time in 1937, Nebraska had a very different legislative institution. The total number of legislators had been slashed from 133 to just 43, a reduction of almost 70 percent, and the number of legislative committees dropped from 61 to just 18. The Unicameral’s first session was shorter and almost 50 percent less expensive than the final session of the state’s old bicameral legislature. Lawmakers also considered half as many bills in 1937 as they did two years earlier, but they actually approved a few more by the time the session ended.

Today, the Nebraska Unicameral includes 49 members, which makes it the nation’s smallest state legislature. But that isn’t all that makes it unique. As a result of the same reform that marked the end of bicameralism in Nebraska, the Unicameral became the nation’s only nonpartisan legislature as well. This, too, was a reflection of Norris’ advocacy; he believed that national party politics were a detriment to the workings of state-level legislatures.

Of course, partisan politics inevitably influence the lawmaking process, even in a body that is officially bipartisan, but according to Patrick J. O’Donnell, long-time clerk of the Unicameral Legislature, the nonpartisan nature of the state’s legislative body remains apparent in several meaningful ways.

Candidates for the Legislature run in open primaries without party affiliations listed on the ballot. Legislative officers and committee chairs are elected by members themselves instead of appointed by partisan caucus leaders, and minority party members still do get elected to serve as committee chairs.

O’Donnell says that policy debates frequently tend to be less partisan in tone because of the unique nature of the Nebraska Unicameral and that final decisions are usually made on the merits of an issue rather than on the basis of political considerations alone.

Seventy-four years after its inception, the Nebraska Unicameral remains one-of-a-kind among U.S. state legislatures. O’Donnell says that other states have frequently visited Nebraska over the years to study the workings of the Unicameral, but so far at least, no other state has followed Nebraska’s lead.