Brittle House on the Prairie

Nebraska’s state government is a strange and wonderful thing. To start with, it is an institution rife with sexual innuendo owing to its unusually phallic domicile. Wikipedia says the state capital building thrusting skywards from downtown Lincoln is popularly known as the “Tower on the Plains.” Hah. Check out the picture above and you tell me what it looks like. That’s right, it does. Out here in flyover country we call it, “the penis on the prairie.” And swinging below this 400-foot high art deco putz is, no dicking around, a one testicle legislature.*

Nebraska is the only state in the union with a unicameral, non-partisan governing assembly. It is actually these traits rather than the over-compensating jumbo johnson architecture that makes it really, really different from Congress and every other state legislature. It contains no minority or majority party and no internecine rivalries between upper and lower chambers. It has only 49 members, meaning Nebraska has the fewest elected legislators of any state.

No political parties? No House-versus-Senate snit squads? Total membership in the Most Noble Order of Hot Air Traffickers limited to what will fit on the average bus? That all sounds pretty good to most people. But, does it work? As in, could it provide an example to Congress of how to do things better? Well, maybe. Especially if people will let it.

The Unicam has been an eighty-year experiment in a very different sort of way to run government. Sure, anyone can figure out who in the chamber is actually a Republican and who’s really a Democrat. They might run as non-partisan, but state senators generally make no secret of what party they boogie with. Still, while legislators are not scrubbed clean of all political loyalties when they enter the chamber, there seems to be little doubt the absence of the party whip has a certain liberating quality. Republicans have regularly voted for Democrats to be powerful committee chairs and vice versa. Lacking party caucuses, at least inside the chamber, there’s remarkably little of the sort of partisan Hatfields and McCoys irrational blood feuds so characteristic of contemporary governing institutions.

Instead, coalitions have tended to be fluid, forming around one issue only to dissolve and re-form around another. The closest thing to an institutionalized split is an urban-rural divide, but even that’s pretty blurry, with both types generally getting on with each other. Even if it’s not a Unicam utopia, it’s generally been a place with a damn sight more civility and comity than the slander factories often found polluting the commonweal with bluster and accusation under capitol domes.

There are two groups that aren’t too thrilled with these shockingly high lawmaker kumbaya levels. The first is, believe it or not, political scientists. For my crowd it’s mostly an issue of representation and accountability. We’ve repeatedly proven that the sum total of an average voter’s (accurate) political knowledge can be written in large letters on one side of a Starbucks receipt. And have room to spare. What most voters do know about politics, though, is that Republicans and Democrats are different—one is more righty, one is more lefty. Party labels, then, provide voters with a quick, semi-informed basis on which to vote and hold government accountable.

Take away those party labels and people do not suddenly say, “ah crap, I better start reading detailed policy proposals and looking up voting records so I can sort these suckers out.” Nope. Lacking a party label, voters simply search for something else easy to latch onto, which like as not is candidate name. Recognize it? More likely to vote for it. Dudes also seem to get more voter love, so having some manly-man moniker like Duke Studmuffin is probably more of an asset than something like Lucy Limp-Lemon. Out here in Nebraska something recognizably German or Danish is probably a good vote-getter. Something sporting tildes dancing merrily above multiple syllables probably not so much. Being a good old fashioned “Al” is likely a plus. On the other hand, “al-Harambi” isn’t likely to get the vote machines ringing. As a rule, political scientists generally view picking lawmakers on the basis of last name diphthong counts as a poor basis for representative democracy. So until every citizen enthusiastically signs up for Intro to American Politics at the local U, professional scholars of government would prefer party labels on the ballot.

The other group that really wants party labels put back is, not surprisingly, political parties. Or more specifically, the Republican Party. The GOP quite correctly surmises that if the Unicam was partisan it would rule the roost and could get down to the serious business of turning Nebraska into Kansas. Nebraska is a very red state and the number of senators with a known Republican Party affiliation is well north of 30, while known Democrats are not even half that. What drives the GOP bats is the fact that this huge majority often doesn’t do them much good. Senators regularly and routinely wander away from the party line, bouncing back and forth depending on the issue. Republicans have supported expanding Medicaid, ending the death penalty, allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and all manner of other insults and heresies to Republican Party orthodoxy.

In Congress and pretty much every other state, punishment for such partisan backsliding is likely to be certain and swift. It’s a lot harder to primary a party apostate, though, when there’s no party primary. It must gripe them no end, but Republicans in Nebraska have discovered that political scientists are essentially correct—no party labels means most voters are never quite sure what their representatives have been up to. And, at least in Nebraska, that’s turned out to be not necessarily a bad thing. Freed from the hammer of party discipline, senators have been much more likely to pay something approaching reasoned and thoughtful attention to the issues at hand. Fancy that.

This much displeases party grandees, especially our governor the Very Republican Pete Ricketts. Corralling any legislature is hard enough, but feline flocking a non-partisan assembly into lockstep fealty to a party agenda has proven dang near impossible. Ricketts and the GOP are certainly putting in the effort, though, and they seem to be making some headway. They are aided by two things—Ricketts is bona fide billionaire and the legislature is term limited. This means the guv’s deep pockets can help recruit and promote the candidacies of sworn party supplicants, and as senators regularly get term limited out there are plenty of open seats for them to run for. If you’ve got a big enough group of devout partisans with more loyalty to the governor than to the institution in which they serve, chances are you can start to approximate the ideological follies common in every other legislature.

And, sure enough, the little house on the prairie is starting to wobble from this concentrated attempt to make it more partisan. In the most recent session there was a lot more obvious partisanship than usual in selecting committee chairs. The legislature spent an inordinate amount of time debating rules changes that would allow smaller majorities to ram through legislation. Partisan elbows went out in the selection of committee chairs. Levels of irritation, if not outright animosity, have ratcheted up a bit. The Unicam has shuffled closer to the norm of lawmaking by partisan prattle and pretense.

And that’s a shame. What the Unicam has shown is that a non-partisan representative legislature can work, and work well, within the political system of the United States. Rather than trying to get rid of it, it might be a better idea to emulate it. Could that really happen? Sure. If only some people had the balls to let it.

*the “one testicle legislature” label was, as far as I’m aware, coined by Dan Moser, former local NPR personality and very funny guy. You should follow him: @danmoser1961.