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Lloyd Omdahl, Published August 04 2013

Omdahl: Critics of one house fall flat

If the one-house legislature is so good, why haven’t other states followed Nebraska’s example?

That was a common argument raised by opponents of a one-house system for North Dakota. There is a good answer for that criticism.

In half of the states, the legislature is the only means by which a constitutional amendment can be proposed to provide for a one-house legislature. And you can bet that the legislators in those states aren’t going to propose an amendment that would cost half of them their seats in the legislature.

In the other half of the states, including North Dakota, the people could initiate an amendment to provide for a one-house legislature. However, a one-house legislature offers no particular benefits to any special group, so motivation for an initiative campaign is missing.

A proposal for a one-house legislature was soundly repudiated along with a new constitution in 1972.

Being on the same ballot with the unpopular new constitution, the one-house proposal was not given a true public discussion because the constitution dominated the debate. After 40 years, it may be time to look again.

It would be easier for lobbyists to influence a smaller number of legislators.

A one-house legislature would be more transparent with better media coverage and there would no longer be buck passing between houses. That would make legislators more accountable to their constituents and less responsive to lobbyists.

Actually, the current two-house system provides lobbyists with too many opportunities to manipulate the two bodies. They can play one house against the other; they can try different stories in the different houses. It is easier to influence a Senate of 47 than a unicameral with 80 members.

We need a second house to kill the bad bills.

First, we need to acknowledge that the definition of a bad bill is a point of view. My good bill may be your bad bill. With increased scrutiny in a transparent legislative process, there would be fewer bills introduced and even fewer so-called bad bills.

Even if a bad bill were passed, the governor has a veto with which he/she can kill bad bills. And if we should have a governor who can’t tell a bad bill from a good bill, the people can suspend bad legislation through the referral process.

But the U.S. Congress has two houses.

The Congress represents two constituencies. Theoretically, the Senate represents the states and the House represents the people. That is the real reason the national government has two houses.

On the other hand, states are not federations but unitary governments that represent one constituency – the people. This was underscored when the Supreme Court said that both houses of state legislatures must represent not counties or cities but people in equal numbers.

The Nebraska unicameral is nonpartisan, thereby failing to recognize the importance of parties.

Nonpartisanship need not be a part of the unicameral. Parties are important for two reasons: Partisan elections force parties to assume collective responsibility for legislative decisions, and parties organize the legislative system.

In a study of state legislatures, the Nebraska unicameral ranked ninth and would have ranked first if it had the benefit of party organization.

The unicameral has been successfully used in all provinces of Canada except one. All major cities in the United States – some with budgets and responsibilities greater than states – have unicameral governing bodies.

Even though a unicameral makes good sense, adoption in North Dakota is at best a remote possibility. However, stranger things have happened in democracies.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.