Complacent. Infantile. Unresponsive. Unprofessional. This is what Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature has become.
The fault does not lie in the often-misused characterization of partisanship, but in the very structure of a single-house legislature.
As our state comes into this period of redistricting, the painfully hilarious lack of representation of the western counties and concentration of power in the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas serves to highlight those faults to the extreme. The desire to draw “maps that protect the voice of rural Nebraskans,” as stated by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, would be fulfilled in a bicameral Legislature of 30 senators and of 100 representatives.
Of course, one of the arguments of those who defend this indefensible body is that a unicameral Legislature makes Nebraska unique. But I have to ask what is the point of being unique if all it does is create division, concentrates power in the hands of a very few, robs Nebraskans of representation in state government, and is simply weak and ineffectual?
When power is divided and diffused in a bicameral system, lobbyists must win the support of larger number of leaders, committees and members. The dispersion of authority through two houses makes it more difficult for lobbyists to affect legislation by influencing just a few members. Which is a good thing. But in a unicameral, managing outcomes is easier and is why some political scientists call Nebraska “almost heaven” for special interest lobbyists. Which goes against the entire narrative that a single house is more accountable.
The accountability narrative is further hurt when you take a moment and realize that Nebraskans are not noticeably more mindful or informed of legislative activity compared to our surrounding states, and Nebraska legislators are not known to be more alert to constituent interests than other states. This is not the fault of Nebraskans, but an acknowledgment that we all are busy working and raising families. That leaves the lobbyists and activists on the extremes of both parties to be the main voices the legislators hear. So much for the much-vaunted watchfulness of the “Second House,” as unicameralists like to say.
The actual procedures of the Nebraska Legislature are also more secretive and hidden from public view than the other states. Conference committees, once dark and mysterious places where laws could be totally rewritten in secret, now generally operate in public view much like our current committees. Without the added opportunity for the public to be heard after the initial floor action on legislation, the public has no opportunity to be heard on crucial floor amendments, and the final negotiations in Nebraska shift away from relatively open settings to private meetings away from scrutiny or in secret, in places far from the Capitol itself.
In practical matters, the single-house system is clearly weaker. Fewer members and committees are available to acquire and apply specialized knowledge, oversee the executive, while serving the same number of citizens. In Nebraska’s case, the Nebraska Legislature is not uniquely prestigious or an influential force in state government. All while our unicameral nearly spends more on itself than bicameral Legislatures of neighboring states, and in some cases, in excess.
The quality of decision making in the Nebraska Legislature is horrendous while lacking the needed redundancy in critical decision-making systems. Fewer hearings, rapid-fire decision-making, and total lack of consequential debate, reflection, and sober second thought is haphazard and inefficient at best. A fully restored bicameral Legislature would restore not just political norms that are currently lacking, but will give Nebraskans and businesses the stability and consistency needed in tax policy in our state.
That is why any politician or would-be politicians, irrespective of party or position sought, ought to be fully behind this. It is time for our people to truly have a voice. It is time to restore the House and Senate of Nebraska.
Chris Chappelear, of Omaha, is the former chairman of the Nebraska Federation of Young Republicans. He is on Twitter @chrischappelear.