Bright: States should not have bicameral legislatures

Zach Bright, Opinion Editor

This is the second column in “Democracy Do-Over,” a weekly series exploring and making the case for improvements in how we elect public servants and ensure effective representation by all levels of government.

Anyone who’s taken an American history or government class knows the story of why our Congress has both a House of Representatives and Senate. It goes something like this:

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from less populated states favored equal congressional representation regardless of the number of residents. Conversely, highly populated states wanted representation to reflect population. The compromise? A bicameral legislature with a Senate that gave two senators to each state and a House that was proportional to population.

Now the story ends here, and this resolution might seem like a sensible solution given the situation the Constitution’s framers were handed (barring modern-day advocates against this model). If we look at state governments, nearly every single one has a bicameral legislature as well. However, there was no dilemma of representation for which compromise within states was required.

Yet, because Congress seemed to be structured efficiently, states followed suit in creating their constitutions. But because state legislatures are largely the bodies that draw their own district lines for their own state House and Senates, what is the point?

The argument for bicameral state legislatures is feeble at best. At a federal level, the two bodies have certain defined responsibilities. For instance, while only the House can introduce appropriations bills and draft articles of impeachment, the Senate is key in approving most presidential appointments and holding a trial if a president is impeached. At a state level, the substantive differences between a state House and Senate are limited and can easily be carried out by a single legislature.

Simply put, having two houses of a lawmaking body is nonessential representation, an unneeded layer of government. Having just one body would mean that taxpayer money doesn’t have to fund hundreds of unnecessary bureaucratic positions.

Nebraska got it right when it held a 1936 referendum to unify its bicameral legislature. Today, it’s the only state that only has a Senate. It’s still able to legislate just like any other government. Meanwhile, other states have the chance to experience greater levels of gridlock, as a House and Senate both have to pass a bill for it to be sent to a governor’s desk.

That’s not to say that changing this is easy. The people who would be responsible for this change are the same lawmakers who would be out of a job if they moved to unify their legislatures. Moreover, it might appear to be less of a salient issue when change clearly isn’t high on a list of agenda. But it’s not impossible. This type of restructuring could be carried out by posing the question to voters, as was the case with Nebraska, or even at a federal level.

If this kind of low hanging fruit weren’t so low on the government’s agenda, this change might actually be able to come about.

Zach Bright is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.