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Whose house?
November 7, 2005 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Nebraska has the only unicameral, non-partisan legislature in the United States. Created by constitutional amendment in 1935, Nebraska's legislature gained brief influence as a model of legislative politics after the "one man, one vote" Supreme Court rulings in the mid-60s. Many states had not reapportioned their districts for years, creating an imbalance in state and national legislative politics. The Supreme Court ruling which sparked the brief campaign for unicameral legislatures.
posted by Captaintripps (31 comments total)

 
Go Nebraska, makes sense to me.
posted by zeoslap at 6:11 AM on November 7, 2005


We have also imposed term limits to stop this nasty thing called incumbency. Unfortunately, we do not have any legislation against former football coaches running for office...
posted by j-urb at 6:27 AM on November 7, 2005


And it only took us all seventy years to notice.

I don't think I even know anyone who's been in Nebraska.
posted by blacklite at 6:32 AM on November 7, 2005


I've traveled through nebraska. It's very flat.
posted by delmoi at 6:40 AM on November 7, 2005


Prescient quote from the bottom of the first linked article:
The Unicameral’s first clerk, Hugo Srb, predicted that lawmakers in other states would not want to legislate their own jobs out of existence. Despite the interest unicameralism has received over the years, Nebraska remains the only state with a unicameral legislature.
posted by C.Batt at 6:50 AM on November 7, 2005


I've traveled through nebraska. It's very flat.

I grew up in Nebraska. Most of it's flat, but it's very hilly along the eastern border, in the Missouri River valley. And aside from having a unicameral, Nebraska's one of the few states with an architecturally interesting state capital-- true, it looks like a giant cock, but at least it's different.
posted by COBRA! at 7:13 AM on November 7, 2005


That's why it's called the "Penis of the Plains". We're big into phallic worship here in Nebraska.
posted by spock at 7:26 AM on November 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


I don't think I even know anyone who's been in Nebraska.

Funny you should say that. There's this quasi-famous steak house in Lincoln that has various "rooms" named for famous Nebraskans. There's the William Jennings Bryan room, and the Willa Cather room. And IIRC, a Tom Osborne room ("coach" Osborne). And I think that's it.

But sadly, no Malcolm X or Charles Starkweather room.

I'm just goading the Huskers in our midst. Actually, a lot of famous actors are from Nebraska, in addition to the famous Doc Edgerton and Edwin Perkins, inventor of Kool-Aid. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:27 AM on November 7, 2005


Johnny carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska (but he was born in Iowa). He was also a Corn Husker.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:37 AM on November 7, 2005


I like my political process as slow and delayed as possible (aka making two houses Those darn unicameral houses are just a bit too quick for my tastes.

All seriously, the guy argued that joint-committes, in which the deliberations were secret, unrecorded, and the legislation produced was unalterable by voting houses, was one of the main reasons why the unicameral house should be adopted. By law, the first two could easily be changed. The third is redundant, if only because any changes are supposed to be adopted during such a committee process.

As I joked above, however, eliminating one house, also reduces the legislative process. This in turn allows for less deliberation on a specific topic. It is more efficient, but at the same time, more dangerous. The unicameral house might quickly pass something other than a tax cut. (The lack of partisanship also adds to the problem, though I doubt that the Nebraskans entirely ignore party affiliations.)

Government should almost always be a slow lumbering process when it comes to the passage of legislation, to accelerate the process seems foolhardy.
posted by Atreides at 7:46 AM on November 7, 2005


That's why it's called the "Penis of the Plains".

Isn't there a guy on top of the large penis tossing his seeds around.
posted by j-urb at 8:00 AM on November 7, 2005


If you think the unicameral process = speedy government, you clearly are not a Nebraskan.

Also, Nebraska (for whatever reason) does not innovate much, legislatively. They usually look at what other states are doing and pretty much copy what they like - several years after everyone else is already doing it successfully.

They are like the school girl who calls around to ask all of her friends what they are wearing tomorrow.
posted by spock at 8:03 AM on November 7, 2005


Yeah, and Nebraska's political makeup looks to be just as diverse. (not that the rest of the nation is OH so much better). 10 of eleven top posts are (R), heck looks like there isn't even a (D) challenging the governor's spot next time around.

I agree there is a lot of waste in the current style of governance, but I disagree that cutting representation is the solution.
posted by edgeways at 8:18 AM on November 7, 2005


there isn't even a (D) challenging the governor's spot next time around.

Well, that has more to do with the fact that Tom Osborne (currently a U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 3rd District, and legendary University of Nebraska football coach) is running for Governor and less to do with party affiliation. Actually, Nebraska has a recent history of electing many Democrats to the Govenor's mansion and then later rewarding them with trips to the U.S. Senate: J.J. Exon, Bob Kerrey, and current U.S. senator Bob Nelson are recent examples of that phenomenon.

Part of the reason for that may be the unicameral approach to the state legislature. Though a strongly "red" state, Nebraskans tend to look more at the person and less at the party.
posted by spock at 9:18 AM on November 7, 2005


Osborne's running for Governor? Holy crap. An entire childhood's worth of lame jokes just got validated.

Is Ernie Chambers still active in Nebraskan politics?
posted by COBRA! at 9:41 AM on November 7, 2005


Good point, spock. And I'd like to point out that one of my absolute favorite state senators (D) (Ernie Chambers) is from Omaha. The guy is certifiable, in an amazing way. I wish more politicians were like him.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:53 AM on November 7, 2005


Woah, jinx. Thanks to the Republicans, Ernie won't be able to run again in 2008. They basically passed a bill in 2000 just to get him out (they hated his filibustering).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:54 AM on November 7, 2005


Reynolds v. Sims was an awful case.

Justice Warren effectively ruled that United States senate was illegitmate as a matter of political morality but existed as only a historical curiousity of a compromise made at the convention.

Warren ignored the arguments in favor for a bicameral legislature. Warren ignored state perogatives to pattern their legislature . Instead, in an act of promoting a political slogan over legal substance, Warren created a heretofor non-existant legal premise of "one person, one vote" as if people didn't have votes before that work of judicial nonsense.

There is no valid constitutional reason that states can't have one house like the Senate. Warren made one up. And in doing, he undercut the legitimacy of the United States Senate and descimated the idea of states' rights. All for a slogan.
posted by dios at 9:56 AM on November 7, 2005


A couple of choice Ernie Chambers quotes:

"The Catholic Church is more effective as a criminal enterprise than the mafia."

"President Bush is a drunken moral coward bent on starting World War III."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:06 AM on November 7, 2005


The interesting thing is that Nebraska's nonpartisan legislature bears some strong resemblances to one-party legislatures, like of the old south. In both cases, party isn't important so they assemble ad-hoc coalitions behind bills, resulting in chaotic voting patterns. Jerry Wright and Brian Schaffner have a neat paper in the APSR about this; the executive summary is that while NE legislators have reasonably normal personal ideologies, they vote in largely random-seeming ways.

MN also had a nonpartisan legislature from ~1912 to ~1970, but their experience was very different as legislators promptly formed meaningful and long-lasting liberal and conservative coalitions that did a lot of the work that parties do.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:29 AM on November 7, 2005


>But sadly, no Malcolm X or Charles Starkweather room.

From your link:
The two seasoned lawmen... told him to lie down on the ground, but instead Charlie [Starkweather] reached in back of his pants. Thinking that Charlie was reaching for a weapon in his back pocket, Ainslie shot at him again. By this time, Charlie decided to stop tucking in his shirttail and lay down like he was told to.
posted by philfromhavelock at 10:31 AM on November 7, 2005


Ernie Chambers tried to encourage an African-American boycott of one of my plays, sight unseen. And, yet, I can't help but love him.

Other famous Nebraskans: Henry and Peter Fonda, Alexander Payne, Conner Oberst, Paul Williams, Fred Astaire, Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Marlon Brando, Marge Hefelwhatever from CSI, and too many others to name. I lived in Omaha for six years, and had a blast.
posted by maxsparber at 10:39 AM on November 7, 2005


That's a lovely scree, dios, but it ignores the utterly straightforward application of the equal protection clause. If these 100,000 people get to elect one representative, and those 100,000 people get to elect 20 representatives, then they are not protected equally. This is because, at least as mathematicians assert, 20 is more than 1, not equal to one.

Warren ignored the arguments in favor for a bicameral legislature. Warren ignored state perogatives to pattern their legislature

That's because the 14th Amendment beats both of those.

There is no valid constitutional reason that states can't have one house like the Senate.

That comparison is utterly asinine. States are, still, states, and have their own right to exist independent of the federal government's. Counties, however, are not. States can create, abolish, merge, and divide counties however they please, however often they please, and without the consent of the citizens affected.

And in doing, he ... descimated the idea of states' rights.

No, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:41 AM on November 7, 2005


Woah, jinx. Thanks to the Republicans, Ernie won't be able to run again in 2008. They basically passed a bill in 2000 just to get him out (they hated his filibustering).

Crazy. One of the weirder moments of my teens was Ernie Chambers walking into a room full of high school kids and telling us to collectively keep it in our pants. And that, oh yeah, he was aware that our parents had warned us that he was the devil, but we should listen to him anyway.
posted by COBRA! at 11:20 AM on November 7, 2005


"...The constitutions of our various states are built upon the idea that there is but one class. If this be true, there is no sense or reason in having the same thing done twice, especially if it is to be done by two bodies of men elected in the same way and having the same jurisdiction."

It seems redundant to me that since the 17th amendment, Senators are apportioned by geographic area (States, 2 to each) and elected by plurality vote, and Representatives are also apportioned by geographic area (Districts/Parishes/Counties, 1 to each) and elected by plurality vote. This means the minorities within each state/county/parish are not represented, even if together they make up a popular majority.

Has any state experimented with a blend of proportional and direct representation? For example, one house elected in the Parliamentary fashion, and one house elected by district. It would be an interesting experiment, at the very least, combining the best, and the worst, of both systems. (Sorry to say I don't know much about state gov'ts, not even my own...)
posted by purple_frogs at 11:30 AM on November 7, 2005


Ernie Chambers is hilarious. He's also the only black man in the legislature. My favorite state politician as well.

Tom Osborne as governor sort of scares me. In my opinion, he needs to get back to doing the sort of things which make Nebraska a great place, such as leading the football team to greatness (the football team got blown out by Kansas 40-15, Nebraska had beaten Kansas 36 consecutive years before last Saturday).
posted by j-urb at 12:15 PM on November 7, 2005


Dear Fellow Cornhusker Fans,
(With apologies to Nanci Griffith)

Someone should've told you
When football's all you offer
Too soon the world discovers that your
Football's gone
(It's gone...)


I'd like to think Nebraska has more going for it than that.
posted by spock at 1:27 PM on November 7, 2005


This is really wacky. I've recently been reading up on the Nebraska Unicameral. You too can read the legislative rules here if you're a political junkie like me. (There's a rumor about that an initiative to make Michigan unicameral could be on the ballot in the near future.)

ROU_Xenophobe, I've actually already read that paper and it seemed to me that the authors felt that the chaotic nature of the voting patterns was detrimental to voter choice (since they couldn't be sure how their senator would vote). I would suggest that, in a partisan legislature, the people of Nebraska would have access to a much narrower range of legislation since the majority party leadership would control what bills were heard or passed. In this system every senator has an opportunity to pass bills.

I rarely agree with dios but I don't see how, with equal Senate representation the most strongly entrenched provision of the Constitution, the Court could rule against geographic representation in upper houses of state legislatures. The real error was is requiring equality to be "as nearly as practicable" rather than 'practical' in the Congress. This is one of the causes of the awful districts with which we are now afflicted. The rules on state legislative districting is much more reasonable. Districts can vary by as much as +/- 10%, this allows more geographical consistency.

Atreides, the organizers of the Unicameral were aware of the danger of hasty passage so bills get at least one hearing in committee and two on the floor. It seems more than adequate for most situations though I'm sure errors have been made. (Have a look at those rules if you're interested.)

Oh and j-urb (all the way from the top of the thread), the cure for incumbency is called voting. It's a shame that people try to use laws to relieve them of their civic responsibility.
posted by Octaviuz at 2:12 PM on November 7, 2005


I remember when Chambers used to wear a shirt with a target on it to indicating his status as a marked man. That guy sure knows how to filibuster. It's going to be sad to see him go.
posted by dead_ at 2:28 PM on November 7, 2005


Has any state experimented with a blend of proportional and direct representation?

German elections are a mix. You vote for your local representative to the Bundestag, and you vote for a party. Everyone elected to a district goes in, and then they add an appropriate number of legislators with no district to bring the party ratios more or less in line with the percentages of the party vote.

I would suggest that, in a partisan legislature, the people of Nebraska would have access to a much narrower range of legislation since the majority party leadership would control what bills were heard or passed. In this system every senator has an opportunity to pass bills.

Maybe, but legislatures are not normally faced with the problem of having just way too many good ideas. Their normative point was that if you wanted Nebraska politics to be more liberal, it wouldn't be obvious who to vote for to do that because legislators' voting patterns are so far from their apparent beliefs.

I don't see how, with equal Senate representation the most strongly entrenched provision of the Constitution, the Court could rule against geographic representation in upper houses of state legislatures

Counties ain't states. The State of Texas or of North Carolina has an independent existence and a constitutionally guaranteed set of powers and responsibilities. It is not the creature of the United States. The U.S. government cannot abolish the state of Texas, or merge it with Oklahoma, or divide it into several states, or redraw its boundaries, or add to or subtract from its powers at will.

The reverse is true of states and counties. Counties (or other geographic subunits of states) exist entirely at the whim and sufferance of the state government. The state can merge two counties together, even against the unanimous wishes of the residents of the two counties. The state government can divide a county into two or three or 140,000 counties any time it so wishes. The state can abolish a county. The state can abritrarily grant and withdraw powers from a county. The state can adjust the boundaries between two counties, even if the two counties do not wish it. Counties (and cities and so on) are completely and utterly helpless in the face of the state government, entirely its creatures with absolutely no independent right to exist at all. Because of this, it simply doesn't make any sense to use geographic representation in state government, because there is no real, firm geography; every bit of state political geography exists at whim of the governing majority and with its implicit support.

Put more simply, the federal government is a union of citizens and a union of states at the same time, so representation by state is reasonable. But states are only unions of citizens; counties or cities or parishes are not constituent units of states, only people are.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:05 PM on November 7, 2005


Representative democracy. What a brilliant concept - just like the tooth fairy.
posted by spock at 7:25 AM on November 8, 2005


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