Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

29. George W. Norris and the Unicameral

In November 1934 Nebraskans approved a revolutionary state constitutional amendment creating a unicameral legislature, and the first session of the Nebraska Unicameral convened on January 5, 1937. The Unicameral has remained the only one-house legislature in the continental United States for over seventy years. It has become such a fixture in Nebraska politics that the very word “unicameral” has been transformed from an adjective into a proper noun. The person primarily responsible for persuading Nebraskans to approve the Unicameral was their revered U.S. senator, George W. Norris.

Norris had long distrusted bicameralism and believed there was no reason to have two houses when the qualifications and responsibilities of the members were the same. As early as 1923, he had written an article for the New York Times calling for a one-house legislature, and in the years that followed this article was reprinted in pamphlet form and widely circulated in Nebraska. Norris rejected the notion that in the bicameral system the two houses checked and balanced each other. Only half in jest he said, “As a matter of practice, it has developed frequently that, through the conference committee, the politicians have the checks, and the special interests the balances.”

Norris was convinced that the conference committee, which negotiated differences between the two houses, was the bane of state politics. “It is more powerful in all matters referred to it,” he said, “than either house, or than both houses combined.” It was both “undemocratic” and “un-American” because its meetings were held in secret, no rollcall votes were taken, and there was no record of its proceedings. To Norris, the conference committee allowed special interest groups to get their way without fear of public reprisals.

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