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Bicameralism vs. Unicameralism Essay

Although George W. Norris is considered the father of the Nebraska unicameral legislature, the only extant single-chamber legislature in the United States, unicameralism has its intellectual antecedents in the progressive movement. The modern movement for the establishment of single-chamber legislatures began in 1912 in Ohio and Oregon and soon spread throughout the country. Nebraska, however, was the only state in which unicameralism took root.

The unicameral movement in Nebraska may be traced to a 1913 joint legislative committee which, after extensive investigation, recommended the abandonment of bicameralism to the 1915 legislative session. The committee unsuccessfully urged the adoption of a constitutional amendment, to be proposed by the initiative, which would establish a unicameral legislature. Throughout the twenties agitation for a unicameral legislature continued, and in 1923 Senator Norris joined the movement.

It was not, however, until the general election of 1934, through the constitutional initiative and referendum, that the voters of Nebraska adopted the unicameral legislature. When Senator Norris came to Lincoln, Nebraska, on February 22, 1934, to commence his active campaign for the unicameral legislature, he delivered an address entitled “The Model Legislature. ” He began by acknowledging that in establishing new state institutions the early constitutionalists divided the legislative authority

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between two houses on the theory that “one branch of the legislature would check the other.

” But the people had now achieved political maturity so that this check was no longer necessary. For Norris the bicameral legislature was actually a tricameral body because “the conference committee, in reality, comprises a third house. ” The members of this undemocratic conference committee constituted the most important branch of the legislature. They met in secret and kept no record. In practice, instead of legislation by either the House or the Senate, there was legislation by five or six men who were especially susceptible to the blandishments of lobbyists.

In the conference committee “jokers frequently crept into” the laws and the “good things were often taken out. ” It was only in theory that this legislative excrescence could be democratized. A one-house legislature would make the existence of the conference committee unnecessary. Somewhat simplisticly, Norris liked to compare the legislature of a state to a great industrial corporation. “The governor is the president of the corporation, the legislature is the board of directors, and the people are the stockholders.

” The stockholders have a right to know how well the board of directors is representing them, but “with the complexity that comes from a two-house legislature, it is impossible for them to know this. ” Unicameralism would obviate the large amount of time spent by the voters in following the intricacies of the parliamentary situation, and also make “it impossible for any member of the legislature to shift responsibility or to cover up his vote. ” The public, thus, could easily ascertain where the legislator stood on all the issues and act accordingly.

Only the politicians and the representatives of combinations and special interests benefited from the dual-house system. Corruption would be reduced, if not eliminated entirely, and efficiency and integrity take its place. And finally, in a unicameral legislature it would be easier to have nonpartisan representation. Norris could not see why the issues which divide the political parties should in any way be permitted to intrude into state politics. Unicameralism was equated with nonpartisanism and all its virtues.

This was an area in which the Senator was absolutely dogmatic. To Oswald Garrison Villard he wrote that unicameralism “can have only one side; no honest student of government can study the question without coming to the same conclusion. ” He urged the extension of unicameralism to other states and constantly asserted its merits. Shortly before he died, he stated that he was “more enthusiastically in favor of the unicameral legislature” than he had ever been before. The Nebraskan was never able to discover any logical argument in favor of a bicameral legislature.

He dismissed the claims that bicameralism prevented hasty and careless legislation; that it provided a critical review of legislation passed by the lower house; and that each house remedied the defects in legislation passed by the other. Some of the reasons advanced for the bicameral legislature, he insisted, were the very reasons why bicameralism should be abandoned. The argument that a bicameral legislature was a security against the intrigues of scheming politicians and special interest lobbies had proved to be false. If anything, he asserted, bicameralism sheltered the politician and the lobby.

He rejected the contention that a second chamber served as a check against popular passions and impulses; to Norris, the second chamber thwarted the very wishes of the electorate. It is generally conceded that the Senator’s advocacy of the unicameral amendment was the greatest single factor weighing in favor of its passage. Norris’ Lame Duck Amendment had just been ratified by the states, and he enjoyed a reputation as a legislative expert as well as an outstanding liberal. However, it should not be forgotten that the unicameral amendment shared the ballot with two other amendments which were exceedingly popular.

One of them, to repeal Prohibition, was adopted by nearly a 110,000 majority – as compared to a 93,000 majority for the unicameral amendment; the other amendment, authorizing pari-mutuel betting, won by 64,000. In addition, the 1933 Nebraska legislative session had been an inordinately disappointing one, and arguments of efficiency and economy impressed the beleaguered Depression-conscious voter. In actual practice unicameralism in Nebraska has not proved to be as much of a political panacea as Norris and its proponents had hoped; neither has it proved to be a dismal failure. Adam C.

Breckenridge’s perceptive evaluation of Nebraskan unicameralism indicates that despite the change in the structure of the legislature “there continues to be a lot of old fashioned lobbying. ” Although the formal institutional structure may be altered, the basic pressures which operate within the political system remain. In this instance, Norris’ belief that a remodeled chamber would alter the operation of the political process has not been borne out. Nonetheless, the establishment of a single-house legislature in Nebraska has brought about some improvements in the legislative process.

The most significant appears to be a procedural improvement. Bills are given greater consideration than formerly, the quantity of bills seems to be reduced, and there is also a “reduction in the number of joker bills and,” notes Breckenridge, “the perennials which are the favorite of some constituents and done as a favor. ” The Senator seems to have been correct in his belief that the elimination of the conference committee would hasten legislation. Furthermore, the unicameral legislature has clearly effected some savings – perhaps insignificant in relation to the total cost of the state government – but nonetheless recurring.

There has been a net savings of $35,000 in members’ salaries and $8,000 to $10,000 in general legislative expenses a biennium. The ” Nebraska experiment” is no longer an experiment. In their political life, Nebraskans have accepted the single-chamber legislature so completely that the word “unicameral” has become a noun. The unicameral – not the legislature – convened, or adjourned, or passed a law. Unicameralism in Nebraska has proved to be a workable and responsible device of representative government. It may well become one of the most viable state political institutions yet devised to meet the needs of a changing federal system.

As a reform political structure perhaps it has not yet lived up to the potential predicted by the Senator. But Norris himself recognized that reform in the political system is slow and arduous. The choice of the number of chambers to be created by the legislative article is strictly limited. American practice sanctions only the unicameral and the bicameral forms. At present, 49 American states have bicameral or two-chambered legislatures; Nebraska is the only state with a single-house legislature. The decision as to whether the legislature will have one or two houses is basic.

The weight of experience among the American states is heavily on the side of the bicameral system, despite unicameral operation at various times in Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Nebraska. The operation of the two-house national Congress has been more successful than the operation of bicameral state legislatures, where procedural and other difficulties have been compounded in the relatively involved and complex operation of the two-chamber system. The basis of representation is also a greater problem in a bicameral legislature.

The apparent simplicity of operation of the one-house assembly is demonstrated by the recent experience of Nebraska. Many revolutionaries dispensed altogether with the idea of mixed government and envisioned a senate simply as an institutional restraint on the power of the representatives. These men based their views on the assumption that, in a republic, there could be only one interest – that of the people. To organize government around conflicting estates would encourage and even bless political disagreement. At the same time, the framers also assumed that when men held unchecked power they became dangerous.

Therefore, they had little difficulty thinking of a bicameral legislature as two legislative bodies, both elected by and representative of the people, whose primary task was to contain one another’s pretensions to unlimited power and together secure the common good. Those bicameralists, as well as men who supported a single assembly, envisioned an undivided, harmonious polity. “Having no rank above that of freemen,” the essayist “Salus Populi” declared, “she has but one interest to consult, and that interest, (blessed be God for it,) is the true and only interest of men as members of society.

” Those who praised the English constitution, wrote another, denounced republican government. “Admitting the mixed government of Britain to be the best,” he decided, “we cannot enjoy it, for want of its essential constituents. ” The assumption of homogeneity also informed General John Sullivan’s understanding of a proper constitution for his home province, New Hampshire. Upon learning that the Continental Congress had granted New Hampshire the authority to form its own government, Sullivan, a former congressional delegate from the province, offered extensive recommendations to the provincial congress.

Believing there was only one interest in society and assuming that government should promote “the Good of the People,” he wrote from the field that a “Government which admits of contrary or clashing Interests, is imperfect, and must work its own Ruin. ” The eventual “Ruin” of England’s “Empire,” he predicted, would show “the Folly and Danger of establishing a government consisting of different Branches, having Seperate and distinct Interests.

” The theory of mixed government itself was wrong because the royal prerogative and “Checks upon the Licentiousness of the People, are only the Children of ambitious, or designing Men, no such Thing being Necessary. ” Indeed, when in the past “the people” have torn down governments by “Rage and Violence,” invariably it was caused by placing in “their Rulers too extensive a Power. ” The “Tumults at Rome” arose when “Dictators and others were . . . made in some Sort independent of the People. “

Therefore, Sullivan argued, New Hampshire needed a government whose only goal was “the Good of the whole,” attainable only if “one Interest should unite the several governing Branches. ” Concerned about “the incontrolable Power so much sought after by designing Men,” he supported a complex government with a governor (who possessed a suspensive veto), council, and house of representatives. All officials would face frequent popular elections, which “should operate as a Check upon their Conduct. ” In effect, Sullivan proposed a government in which all branches depended directly upon and represented the people, and which the citizenry distrusted.

Sullivan’s argument struck a deep chord. The citizens of Orange County, North Carolina, instructed their delegates to the provincial congress to create a bicameral legislature, “each independent of the other and both dependent on the people. ” The deputies of the militia battalions of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, insisted “that the Legislative may be so constituted as never to be able to form an interest of its own separate from the interest of the community at large, it is necessary its branches should be independent of, and balance, each other, and all dependent on the people.

” Another Marylander asserted that any “government of a free people . . . consists of authorities derived from the people, and these authorities never cease to be conditional. ” He repudiated the mixedgovernment assumption of the need for an independent upper house, “for an independence of them [the people] destroys the idea of liberty. ” A New Hampshire champion of a popularly elected bicameral legislature contended, “The more simple, and the more immediately dependent . . . the authority is upon the people the better, because it must be granted that they themselves are the best guardians of their own liberties.

” Another writer urged that the Massachusetts lower house be called a house of assembly, not a house of representatives, because members of both houses represented the people. A bicameral legislature, composed of two equally representative branches, would ward off the dangers of an unrestrained single assembly. The English constitution, a Rhode Islander argued, created “Parliaments, as a curb on kings and ministers; but they neglected to reserve to the people, a regular and constitutional method of exerting their power in curbing of parliaments. ” In order “to prevent the abuse of power,” he argued, “it is necessary . . .

that power should be a check to power. ” Only two houses, both chosen by popular election and restraining one another, could protect the people’s liberty. The call for a second house to prevent the tyranny of a single assembly was heard up and down the coast and included constitutional radicals and conservatives. New York’s conservative Gouverneur Morris, who brooded that New York’s recently established bicameral legislature would make governance difficult, nevertheless concluded that his countrymen required a complex legislature “because a simple Legislature soon possesses itself of too much Power for the Safety of its Subjects.

” He supported the creation of a senate not because a house of representatives would represent the people too well, but because it might become an exclusive institution pursuing interests contrary to the public good. “An Independent Whig,” the New York writer who had supported Thomas Paine’s call for independence, firmly opposed his plan for a large unicameral legislature to govern the new confederation.

Its members eventually would “be overtaken with the same distemper, that has of late prevailed in the British Parliament, declare themselves omnipotent, and imagine they have a right, because they are the representatives of the continent, to alter the fundamental principles and articles of agreement. ” As North Carolina’s fourth provincial congress attempted to draft a constitution in April 1776, delegate Thomas Jones explained that the congress intended to establish a bicameral legislature in which the “two Houses are to be a check upon each other as no law can be made without the Consent of both.

” The fullest articulation of the need to divide legislative power among two bodies came from Thomas Burke, a North Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress. His experience in Congress, he told Governor Richard Caswell in March 1777, revealed “that unlimited power can not be safely trusted to any man, or set of men, on earth. ” No men, he asserted, were more disinterested than his fellow delegates, who left their homes and private affairs for the public’s good and who, because they served briefly, would gain nothing from increasing congressional power.

Yet they sought power for congress because “Power of all kinds has an irresistible propensity to increase a desire for itself. It gives the passion of ambition a velocity which increases in its progress; and this is a passion which grows in proportion as it is gratified. “”No one,” Burke concluded, “has entertained a concerted design to increase the power” of Congress. Delegates held no consistent position about the proper extent of congressional power; yet they endeavored to increase congressional power “from ignorance of what such a being ought to be, and from the delusive intoxication which power materially imposes on the human mind.

” The result inescapably would be “an abuse and corruption of power. ” Burke pointed to Pennsylvania as a case in point. “I am told,” he wrote, “Dr. Franklin persuaded them, by a simile, to reject a second branch of the Legislature. He said, two branches would resemble a wagon with two horses at the tongue two at the tail, who by pulling opposite ways would keep the machine still.

I think the simile would have been more apt, had it represented four horses yoked to the tongue, whose business it is to assist one another in pulling on the plains, and up hill, and through all difficult places, but in going down hill the two hind-most should oppose the motion of the machine, and prevent its running too fast, to the prejudice – of horses themselves and all concerned. ” The two houses in Thomas Burke’s legislature would cooperate in pursuit of the commonweal, but prevent one another from racing headlong toward tyranny Factors Affecting the Choice of Type

Factors which must be balanced in the choice between bicameralism and unicameralism are: (a) the weight of the tradition of bicameralism in the United States; (b) the argument of operational efficiency advanced in favor of unicameralism at the state level; (c) the determination of whether two distinct bases of representation can be found and will be used in the bicameral system; (d) the force of the argument that interest or pressure groups can, in the long run, control one body more easily than two; (e) a view recently voiced by Professor E. E.

Schattschneider that devices such as bicameralism operate to socialize conflict and thus to contain the wilder impacts of social forces, and have value to the extent that they accomplish this result. The question of the number of legislative chambers must be met at the outset in any general or basic revision of a state constitution, and the choice is not an easy one. Justice Holmes’ remark about the relationship of general propositions to the settlement of concrete cases applies to this decision, and it is not certain that either unicameralism or bicameralism should be employed in each and every state.

The decision as to the number of chambers in a state legislature is intertwined with the question of the bases of representation. There are states in which arduous search and penetrating analysis will fail to turn up more than one feasible, reasonably effective basis of representation. In others, the length of operation under a bicameral system may be the deciding factor for the retention of that type of legislative organization and structure. State constitution-makers in the future should give consideration to the possibility of instituting a single-house legislature.

Failure to face this problem in a realistic manner is to admit difficulty in the areas of representation and apportionment. Not all experiments are equal, of course. Unicameralism is especially deserving of further attention at the state level since the Supreme Court has, through its one-person, one-vote decisions, undermined the distinctive representational features of upper chambers in most state legislatures. Experiments at the state level with parliamentary forms of government and proportional representation electoral laws might also be worthwhile.

The citizen initiative, on the other hand, is generally destructive because it is so open to manipulation by special (and especially moneyed) interests. And the case that term limits will enhance governments’ capacity to innovate, impose losses, or set priorities is dubious at best. Constitutional experimentation at the state level is easier to justify than amendments to the federal Constitution. First, it may provide more effective government where it is adopted.

Second, any ill effects it creates will be more limited in geographic scope. Third, it may make alternative governance options available to an American public that is frequently unaware of foreign experience. If such experiments prove successful, they might later gain adoption at the federal level. Institutional experimentation by the states may also be more possible than at the federal level, because state-level constitutional amending procedures are generally less stringent than those at the federal level.

This also allows for easier repeal at the state level of amendments that turn out to undercut governing capacity. Barriers to state-level experiments in the federal Constitution are also minimal. The Constitution does require the federal government to “guarantee . . . a republican form of government” in the states (Article IV), and the Seventeenth Amendment allows the “executive authority” in the states to appoint replacements to the federal Senate when such an office falls vacant.

Neither requirement would bar adoption of a parliamentary system, proportional representation, or unicameral legislatures at the state level. Radical reform in the states faces many of the same political barriers as at the federal level, of course, including increased risks to incumbent politicians. Unicameralism would make these risks into a sure thing by eliminating some political positions altogether. With fifty potential laboratories for institutional reform, however, the odds that the barriers to reform can be overcome in some places increase significantly.

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