By Nathan Leach
The floor of Nebraska’s unique Unicameral Legislature. (George W. Norris Legislative Chamber (https://nebraskalegislature.gov | Photo Clearinghouse)
The past twenty years have seen a steady rise in partisan discord in the US Congress, which often leads to legislative gridlock. It's a clear departure from the ideals of working together for the common good. Former U.S. Senator George W. Norris, a notable figure from Nebraska, offers a different path that's rooted in nonpartisan governance.
Norris served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1903 to 1913, and in the U.S. Senate from 1913 to 1943. Among other accomplishments, he was instrumental in pushing for a Unicameral Legislature in Nebraska in 1934 to reduce party politics and misuse of power. Norris was behind the Rural Electrification Act, a crucial move that brought electricity to many farms across America as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). After a fruitful tenure, he returned to his home in McCook, Nebraska and was the first Nebraskans inducted into the state's Hall of Fame.
In his day, Norris faced a rigid structure in Congress, where Speaker Joe Cannon had a tight grip on legislative procedures. Cannon is known as one of the most powerful Speaker's of the U.S. House of Representatives. Norris saw the need for a more democratic setup, where the Speaker’s power was balanced with the voices of other elected representatives.
He introduced a resolution to change how the Committee on Rules was formed, aiming to democratize the process. The idea was to have different districts, represented equally in party terms, to select members for the Committee on Rules, reducing the Speaker’s control over committee appointments.
Fast forward to now, the recent election of Rep. Mike Johnson as the Speaker of the House echoes a need for such reforms. Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature, which operates on nonpartisan lines, stands as a living example of how Norris's vision can be translated into action. Nonpartisan Nebraska is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to preserving the nonpartisan structure of the Nebraska Legislature. We define a nonpartisan body as one that doesn't favor political parties in elections or decision-making. Even though members often belong to a party, the parliamentary rules allow and promote them to act independently, working for the people they represent instead of merely following party directives.
The Nebraska model is all about dialogue and collective decision-making, free from the shackles of party labels. It's a reminder that there’s room for nonpartisan structures even in today’s polarized political climate.
As Rep. Johnson steps into his new role amidst a myriad of challenges, the principles of nonpartisan governance could serve as a guide. The legacy of Norris and the longtime success of Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature (first meeting in 1937) challenge us to think beyond the traditional partisan mold.
Norris’s story and Nebraska's unicameral model are reminders of the possibility to find and work beyond partisanship for the betterment of the community. As Norris reminded the first Unicameral members before their maiden session in 1937, honesty, courage, and wisdom should guide elected representatives to make decisions that serve the American people, not the broken two party monopoly.
This is a call for reflection to embrace nonpartisan reforms, to work towards less polarized and more cooperative state houses and Congress. Such an approach, rooted in historical success and practical necessity, beckons a shift in the national discourse. It's an invitation to reimagine governance where collective good triumphs over partisan rivalry, aligning with the spirit of democracy as envisioned by Senator Norris, one of America's finest statesmen. Norris photo: Senator George Norris is honored with a statue outside the Norris House in McCook, Nebraska. (Nathan Leach/Nonpartisan Nebraska).