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Nebraska legislators should remember the vision of Senator Norris

(Nathan Leach/Nebraska Examiner)

The floor of Nebraska’s unique Unicameral Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)


The Nebraska Legislature is set to convene in the State Capitol’s George W. Norris Legislative Chamber on Wednesday, one day before George W. Norris Day, a state holiday established in 1981 to promote education about the late statesmen and his impact on both Nebraska and the nation.


Norris, whose legacy was cemented when he became the first inductee into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1961, was elected to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and five terms in the U.S. Senate. Throughout his career, he maintained a fierce loyalty to the people of Nebraska. He insisted that elected officials serve the people before political parties or special interest groups, and he served his final term in the U.S. Senate as an independent.


While considering legislation to establish George Norris Day, John Braeman, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, told lawmakers that, “although Norris was not a native son of Nebraska, having been born July 11, 1861 in Ohio, he moved to the state at 24 years of age … his life was inextricably intertwined with the history of his adopted state, [and] perhaps no other single figure associated with the state gained such a distinguished national and even international reputation.”


Norris sponsored the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that ended the 13-month “Lame Duck” session of Congress, he co-sponsored the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act that strengthened labor’s collective bargaining rights, he championed the Rural Electrification Act which brought electricity to farms across America, and he sponsored legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, the first use of self-sustaining water power in the United States.


But Norris’ crowning achievement was in Nebraska when voters approved our one-house unicameral legislature in 1934. Norris, who first argued for a nonpartisan unicameral in a New York Times column in November 1920 titled “A Model Legislature,” is said to have worn through two sets of tires from driving across Nebraska campaigning for the unicameral initiative.


The Unicameral was founded on Norris’ passionate endorsement, and it should be remembered that his nonpartisan vision was not peripheral — it was central to the unicameral reform. This is especially relevant today as some call to abandon the secret ballot vote for leadership elections, a move many fear would bring far more partisanship into the formally nonpartisan body.


When the first Unicameral Legislature met in 1937, Senator Norris missed the opening day of the U.S. Senate in order to address the newly elected body:


You are members of the first legislature of Nebraska to hold your positions without any partisan political obligation to any machine, to any boss, or to any alleged political leader. Your constituents do not expect perfection. They know that it is human to err but they do expect, and have the right to expect, absolute honesty, unlimited courage, and a reasonable degree of efficiency and wisdom. […] We expect an economical and efficient administration and, above all, an honest administration free from any partisan bias, political prejudice, or improper motives.


To help establish the Legislature as nonpartisan, the new unicameral body changed how lawmakers selected leadership. In the former Nebraska House and Senate, both parties put forward nominees, the party with the most members elected the leader, and that leader appointed members of their party to committee chair positions.


But the Unicameral adopted a different approach. Instead, senators would elect leaders based on merit, not party affiliation alone; the business of the Legislature was decentralized; and all members would have an equal say in the process. In 1937 it was a ballot vote — not a recorded roll-call vote — that was used to elect legislative officers, the Speaker, and the Chair of the Committee-on-Committees.


When Nebraska lawmakers convene again this January for the start of a new legislative session, they should reflect carefully on the life and legacy of Senator Norris, and think twice before abandoning his nonpartisan reforms.


This commentary was originally published by the Nebraska Examiner on January 3, 2023. A similar version by the same author was published January 1, 2023 in the Omaha World-Herald and can be read online here.

Norris photo: Senator George Norris is honored with a statue outside the Norris House in McCook, Nebraska. (Nathan Leach/Nonpartisan Nebraska).


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