The North Dakota Way: Legislative rules allowing all bills to reach floor reflect commitment to openness

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No.5: May 2011

Across the country, no two legislatures go about the business of lawmaking in exactly the same way. Still, for the most part, the basic procedures used in most capitols are similar enough that a visiting legislator would quickly recognize key features of the process in almost any state.

Here in the Midwest, however, one legislature stands apart from the rest, thanks to a unique combination of traditions, operating authority, customized rules and subtle nuances that make it unlike any other in the region.

The North Dakota Legislative Assembly is different from other Midwestern legislatures in many ways.

For starters, it is the only legislative body in the region — and one of just four nationally (Montana, Nevada and Texas are the others) — that still meets only every other year. That could change some day. Nationally, the number of states with biennial legislative sessions has slowly dwindled in recent years, and over time,

North Dakota has seen its share of proposals to move to annual sessions. But according to Jim Smith, director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, support for the existing system remains high.

The state’s lawmaking process itself is also unique.

In most states, for example, there are numerous opportunities to derail or kill a bill long before it ever reaches the floor of the legislature. Not so in North Dakota, where every introduced bill is guaranteed both a hearing in committee and a final vote on the floor of the full House or Senate.

Lawmakers in other states, where legislative committees can and frequently do prevent proposed bills from advancing, often find this feature of the North Dakota process surprising. But the dean of the North Dakota Senate, Republican Sen. Dave Nething, says that North Dakota’s process reflects both the state’s progressive populist history and its traditional commitment to transparency in government.

Nething points out that legislative caucus meetings and committee hearings are all open to the public in North Dakota. Until the early 1970s, committees were permitted to hold executive sessions in order to vote on proposals behind closed doors, but since 1973, all committee votes have been required to be taken in open committee session.

Nething says these rules help citizens to better understand the lawmaking process and, he adds, “raise the level of discussion among legislators.”

A 45-year veteran of the legislature, Nething also points out that the inability of committees to kill proposed legislation “tends to prevent the introduction of less serious proposals that might otherwise be introduced only to please a constituent.”

As in other legislatures, North Dakota committees can recommend that bills be passed by the full body once they reach floor, but even proposals that fail to win committee approval continue to advance.

Smith says that most bills come to the floor with a “do pass” or a “do not pass” committee recommendation attached, but occasionally, they arrive without any committee recommendation at all. Regardless, every introduced bill eventually receives a roll call vote on the floor of the full chamber in which it was proposed. This, too, reflects the state’s commitment to transparency in lawmaking.

“Our openness really is the key to effective government,” Nething says.

This article was written by Mike McCabe, director of the CSG Midwest Office. Only in the Midwest is an ongoing series of short articles that highlight a unique aspect of states and state governments in the Midwest. The first article in this series was on Nebraska’s use of a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature. If you have an idea for a future article, please contact Mikeat 630.925.1922.