Selecting legislative committee chairs: Process is largely controlled by leadership, but Nebraska is one notable exception

Stateline Midwest ~ Feburary 2012

In Nebraska, the jockeying to become chair of one of the state’s 14 standing committees can last from the day one session ends to the day the next session is ready to begin.

“People can spend the entire interim trying to line up votes,” notes Sen. Mike Flood, speaker of the Unicameral Legislature.

As in many other states, Nebraska’s committees are a critical part of the decision-making process and are considered the “workhorses” of the legislature: Every introduced bill, for example, goes through one of the Unicameral’s committees and receives a public hearing.

But Nebraska stands alone in the region for how the leaders of those committees are selected.

The lining up of votes doesn’t mean simply securing the support of a few legislative leaders or a party caucus. Instead, every two years on the floor of the Legislature, all 49 members choose the committee chairs through a secret ballot vote.

Flood says this distinctive selection process goes hand-in-hand with the uniqueness of Nebraska’s political system — the only state with a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.

“It goes back to what George Norris [a former Nebraska U.S. senator] envisioned with the Unicameral,” Flood says, “and that is a decentralized legislature not dominated by party politics.”

“The committee selection process is part of that because it celebrates individual members and their abilities.”

Flood is the first speaker in the state’s history not to have first served as a committee chair. And unlike legislative leaders in other states, he does not have direct control over who the leaders of the standing committees will be.

A CSG Midwest survey of the selection process found that in most of the region’s 11 states, the top leader of the majority party caucus chooses committee chairs. In addition to Nebraska, there were three other exceptions to this rule. The upper legislative chambers in Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin have special organizational committees — made up of the top leaders of the party caucuses — that choose the chairs.

  • Wisconsin’s five-member Committee on Senate Organization is composed of the top legislative leaders in both parties. The chair of that committee, the Senate president, selects the chairpersons of the standing committees.

  • The Kansas Senate’s nine-member Standing Committee on Organization, Calendar and Rules is led by the Senate president (chair of the committee) and majority leader (vice chair of the committee).

  • In Minnesota, committee chairs are selected by an organizational committee of the majority caucus.