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Bicameral, Unicameral Legislatures, and Political Partisanship Prepared by H. Frank Carey and Hicksville High School students, Melody Ciorciari, Lou Cona, Prateek Kohli, and Frank Sivilli (Teachers: Mr. Patrick Frino and Ms. Amanda Mayr) This Issue-in-Brief is part of 2010 Renew New York, sponsored jointly by Hofstra University, Newsday, and Cablevision. See Renew New York website at Students from 10 high schools used the model of the National Issues Forums in preparing briefs and forums. Hofstra coordinators: Michael D’Innocenzo, Andrea S. Libresco and Bernard Stein (in association with the Hofstra University Center for Civic Engagement, interns: Kayla Rivara and Samantha Rashid)

Introduction The formation of the New York State Legislature is rooted in English law and is modeled on the House of Lords and House of Commons. New York State’s bicameral, two house legislatures, consists of the Senate and Assembly. The basic job of these legislative branches is to produce bills that may become law depending on the Governor signing or vetoing the bill. Political scientists and activists question the role and effectiveness of a bicameral versus a unicameral, one house legislature. Some, following the lead of Nebraska innovator, George Norris, also propose that a move toward a unicameral legislature could reduce the


extremes of electoral partisanship, which are increasingly evident in 2010, even as the voting public identifies less and less with formal political parties. Late in the nineteenth century state legislatures gained the reputation as places full of corruption and back room deals. Many reformers called for a one-house legislature modeled after many city, county and school district governing bodies. The only unicameral legislature in the United States now is in the state of Nebraska. It was implemented in 1937 and in its first year reduced the cost of the legislature by nearly fifty percent. The push for reform of state government quieted down until 1964 when the Supreme Court decision in Reynolds V Sims brought the issue to the forefront once again. The ruling in that case required that all legislative bodies must be based upon population distribution alone. This ruling opened the door for reformers to call for a unicameral legislature again as they argued that the bicameral system was redundant; there was no need to have two houses that both represented the same population. George Norris’s view, nearly three quarters of a century ago anticipated the Supreme Court verdict: “The two house system is outdated, inefficient and unnecessary.� Is this the time for a more substantive revisiting of the structure of legislative bodies and how they affect our political system and the participation of voters? The issue confronted here is how New York State can obtain the most able, honest and qualified representatives, and how the legislature can best function in the public interest. A key issue raised is how to keep checks and balances intact with a unicameral legislature? However, supporters of moving toward a unicameral legislature argue that there would still be a three-branch system including the Governor and Supreme Court, to provide checks on a one-house body. In an age when Facebook and Twitter rule our social lives, less and less attention is being paid to the economic and political health of our nation and our state. It seems that until recently many Americans have reflected a carefree attitude of letting government operate without question or oversight. With mounting problems now in our state and nation, this is an auspicious time for people to examine the structure of government in the Empire 2

State and to consider whether it can be changed for the better, and possibly become a model for other states in the nation. This Issue Guide seeks to provide information that can assist attentive people to decide what is in the best public interest.

Some Options to Consider Option 1: Establish a Unicameral Legislature New York citizens are now suffering from budget cuts.

Proponents of

unicameralism say why not let the legislators bear the brunt of the financial squeeze by cutting their houses in half and striving for one house, that is less partisan. A unicameral body can also improve efficiency, cut costs, and increase transparency. In making this change in the structure of New York government, the people will have more access to their representatives, and their views will be heard and entertained in a timely matter.

Those Who Support Unicameralism Say: •

It saves money. Switching to a unicameral legislature cuts costs enormously; this would help the looming state budget deficit. In 1936 the bicameral Nebraska legislature spent $202,593 versus the 1937 unicameral cost of $103, 443. Savings would be enormously higher in 2010. The cost of staff, commuting, offices, mailings, etc. are cut more than half.


It fosters transparency and accountability. Changing to a unicameral legislature also removes a whole body of representatives who frequently place the blame for inaction on the opposing house. Now, with a unicameral legislature, constituents have more of a direct contact with a single representative for their district and they are better able to know who exactly keeps their promises and who does not. In Nebraska switching to a unicameral legislature cut representatives from 133 to only 43.


It increases productivity. The switch to a unicameral legislature in Nebraska cut committees from 61 to 33. In 1936 the bicameral legislature passed only 192 bills, versus the 1937 Nebraska unicameral legislature passing an enormous 581 bills.


Laws can simply be enacted more swiftly since they do not have to be reconciled by two chambers. •

It fosters efficiency. The unicameral legislature provides both the executive branch and the constituents with a direct and effective contact with the legislature. That means more potential for more bills being passed, and for more voices being heard. With a faster response time, both the people and the governor are likely to get more action from the legislature. Reducing the number of representatives who are accountable to the voters is likely to result in less corruption and more productivity.

Lobbyists are less influential because the lawmaking process is more public.

Those Who Oppose a Unicameral Legislature Say: •

There is a significant loss of checks and balances. Having a Senate and an Assembly is likely to limit a rush to judgment on policies that may warrant deeper and slower deliberation.

A smaller legislature will mean a weaker check on the executive.

A one-house legislature is easier to lobby – fewer legislators to influence.

A larger number of representatives, configured in different size districts for the Senate and the Assembly, can better reflect the variety of communities of interest throughout our large, populous and complex state. A unicameral legislature is not likely to accommodate these vast and diverse constituencies in our state. There is a reason why unicameral systems are typically found in smaller, more culturally homogeneous nations.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken. There is merit in tradition and good reasons why New York has had a bicameral legislature for more than 200 years.


Option 2: Keep the Bicameral Legislature – It’s Rooted in History and Tradition The state of New York currently employs a two-body, bicameral legislature located in Albany. It is divided, as most other examples of bicameralism, with an upper house, the State Senate, and a lower house, the Assembly.

Those Who Favor a Bicameral Legislature Say: •

Tradition matters. It is no accident that 49 of our 50 US states are bicameral. Politically, the concept really does have merits of its own. It has allowed for relatively smooth sailing from the time of its inception by allowing checks and balances to cancel out powers that would otherwise grow to be out of control. It keeps any one interest from taking the floor, and weeds out corruption from over taking the legislative branch.

A necessary bureaucracy, provided by a bicameral legislature, is more likely to serve the complex needs of a population of nearly 20 million in our state. With different powers and responsibilities allocated to each house, the system ensures that things get handled in a more efficient and comprehensive manner. In New York State, for example, the Senate convenes as a body but also divides into smaller subcommittees to better tackle issues that require specific attention. The same is true for the Assembly. Examples include the agriculture, banking, veteran’s affairs, and environmental conservation committees in the assembly, as well as many of the same that run concurrently in the Senate. In this manner of ‘Necessary Bureaucracy’ the state can ensure that all problems are dealt with to the full extent of their seriousness, and can ensure that nothing falls by the wayside.

It is more efficient than critics recognize. While some may argue against bicameralism in stating that it’s simply too expensive to maintain, and that it doubles the cost of state upkeep when compared to a unicameral system, efficiency in modern legislatures with modern technology can substantially reduce costs. In 2009 alone, the New York State Legislature passed upwards of 5

16,000 bills, nearly double the number in Nebraska, the only state with a unicameral legislature. These bills did a multitude of different things, and proved why bicameralism gets to handle many more issues with far greater detail. A dual-body legislature has greater involvement by more people and can achieve a sharp focus in a more orderly manner. Although at times some gridlock on certain issues may occur, it is often resolved in a firmer and more comprehensive manner. Having two houses and slowing the legislative process will foster more deliberative, responsive and responsible conduct in the long run. •

Voters can still have an effective voice by casting their ballots for specific candidates representing particular parties.

Those Who Oppose a Bicameral Legislature Say: •

See the arguments that have been made above in support of a unicameral legislative body, including avoiding red tape and bureaucracy, the time consuming process of trying to pass legislation, the failure to enact legislation if both houses do not agree and the proposed bills just “die.”

Option 3: Power To The People Regardless of the structure of government in New York or any other state, how well it works ultimately depends on the role of citizens.

Whether there is a bicameral or

unicameral legislature, elected officials may be out of touch with voters unless citizens are attentive to what is going on and obtain enough reliable knowledge so that they can make informed judgments about public policies and the values that support them. Ultimately, as Ralph Nader, once noted: “Democracy requires daily citizenship.” If citizens paid a fraction of the attention they do to the “daily wars” of the Major League Baseball season or to who will win “Dancing With the Stars” or “American Idol” our government would have a better chance of achieving its founding goal: to serve res


publica – the public good. Consequently, whether we have a unicameral or bicameral Legislature is of less consequence that finding ways to foster an engaged citizenry.

Those Who Argue For More Power To The People Say: •

We need to restore and improve “civics” classes in our schools so that people learn in their early years about the structure and operation of our government.

We need to encourage (guide) parents so that they model citizenship for their children, from keeping informed about what is going on, to talking about government issues at home, to voting (including following the example of “Kids Vote” by taking their children to the polls on election day). Such practices will help young people to realize how privileged we are as Americans to have something most people around the world go to sleep every night wishing they had: the right to vote and participate in a marketplace of ideas.

We need to encourage people to communicate with each other about their concerns and their goals, and to form associations so that their views have more impact with elected officials (more than 150 years ago, Tocqueville celebrated the capacity of Americans to form and sustain “voluntary associations” that could affect politics and policy. We seem to have gone too far in the direction of individualism instead of promoting our sense of community identity.

Let’s bring back the spirit of the Town Meeting where citizens can engage in real “Reality” instead of passively watching fake “reality” TV programs.

Once citizens, beginning in schools and families, feel the empowerment of knowledge of politics and government, elected officials will need to be more responsive to them.

Political parties are in decline; citizens are more interested in electing people whose concerns will be the public good, not serving partisan parties.

Power to the people also requires a more effective media that serves the public interest instead of dramatizing celebrity and sensationalism.

Too many TV

stations follow the approach that “If it bleeds, it leads.”


Those Who Question People Power Over Structural Change Say: •

As in architecture, function is most likely to follow form. An effective structure of government will set the framework for citizens to respond. We need to take stock of the pro and con arguments for unicameral and bicameral legislatures, and decide which one is in the best public interest.

Most people, according to sociologists, experience “time poverty.”

It is

unrealistic to expect regular people to be well informed about complex political issues.

Especially in our suburban area, where so many people spend time

commuting, there are just not enough hours to keep up with politics. •

The media will never change to make politics more interesting or to give the space to it that it gives to sports and entertainment. Media people will do what sells and will claim they are just giving the people what they want. It does seem more people want fun, excitement, relaxation than deep thought about government, equality and justice.

It is almost impossible to amend the New York Constitution to bring effective changes.

Tradeoffs: •

Bicameral legislature costs and inefficiencies can better be overcome if there are improvements in the political process itself, involving elections and more engaged citizenry. There is less need to change the structure than to improve the involvement of the voting public.

More effective media coverage of elected officials and of how the government is functioning will do much to make bicameral legislatures operate more effectively.

If we truly have confidence in the resiliency and flexibility of our democracy there is no reason that we could not arrange a 5 or 10-year experiment with a unicameral legislature. At best, the change can foster innovation that serves our state, and, perhaps, becomes a model for other states.

At worst, we would

accumulate empirical evidence about which system works best.


Tough Issues to Consider •

Bicameral or Unicameral Legislature.

Amending the State Constitution.

Fostering an engaged citizenry.

These issues are important to the proper functioning of a democracy and will not be resolved immediately. As citizens, revitalizing our democracy will be our life’s work.


Renew New York Issue-in-Brief