Nebraska’s Nonpartisan, Unicameral Legislature Is A Model Of Deliberative Democracy

If you’re looking to Nebraska for a model to emulate, don’t look at the football team. Look at the state legislature.

The Nebraska state legislature, which meets in Lincoln, is the only unicameral state legislature in the US and was specifically designed in the 1930s with multiple features to foster deliberative democracy by enhancing transparency and downplaying party politics. I don’t think Nebraska senators are, overall, any better than those of other states, but I think they operate somewhat more rationally than others because the system is set up to encourage genuine deliberation, which is good for everyone.

I’m not suggesting anyone move to Nebraska in order to enjoy its excellent laws.Nebraska legislators, all known as “senators,” are mostly Republican, whereas I have supported the Democratic candidate for president in every election since John Kennedy in 1960, when I was 9 years old. I would have supported Adlai Stevenson over Dwight D. Eisenhower in the first two presidential elections of my life had I known what was going on. So I’m not particularly a fan of Nebraska law.

Nevertheless, I think Nebraska law is better than it would otherwise be because it is generated through a process designed to promote deliberation. There is, in fact, substantial evidence in cognitive and social psychology that democratic deliberation increases the likelihood of rational outcomes. In a time when party politics overwhelms genuine argumentation across the nation, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, known as “the Unicam,” may be worthy of emulation. 

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The Unicam was conceived and promoted by George Norris, who represented
Nebraska in the U.S. Congress from 1903 to 1943, first as a Republican member of the House of Representatives, then as a Republican senator, and finally as an Independent senator. Nebraskans voted in 1934 to replace their traditional bicameral legislature with a unicameral legislature, which began operation in 1937.

The Unicam has a single chamber consisting of 49 senators representing 49
legislative districts. Every bill is assigned to a committee of senators, who hold a
public hearing at which anyone may speak. Bills approved by committee may be scheduled to be heard on the floor, where all 49 senators may participate at each stage of deliberation. There are no secret processes or reconciliation committees to resolve differences in bills passed by two chambers.

State senators are elected on a nonpartisan basis. All candidates run in a single
primary; the top two go forward to the general election. These are often a Republican and a Democrat, but they are often two Republicans and can be (at least in Lincoln or Omaha) two Democrats.

The operation of the Unicam is also, ideally, nonpartisan. There are no party
caucuses. It is common for senators to work closely with each other on potential bills without regard to party affiliation and to find creative ways to get 25 or more votes from the 49 senators.

There are several checks on quick passage of laws without adequate discussion and debate. For legislation to pass, it must be approved three times over an extended period, usually weeks or months, with deliberation prior to each vote. In addition, although bills can be amended by a majority of those present, approval at each of the three stages of debate requires 25 votes (or more in the case of a filibuster), even if some of the 49 senators are absent or abstain.

Of course, there is always party politics. The 2017 legislative session was a particularly serious challenge to the Unicam’s nonpartisanship and commitment to deliberation. I hope Nebraska can remain a model of democratic deliberation.

So if you’re looking to Nebraska for a model to emulate, don’t look at the football team. Look at the state legislature.

By the way, a unicameral legislature is also less expensive to run than a bicameral legislature. You can be sure that was a factor in the thinking of fiscally conservative Nebraskans when they downsized the legislature. But finances aside, deliberative democracy is a good idea, and we desperately need more of it today. A nonpartisan unicameral legislature is one way to foster that.