Pox on both the House and Senate

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Encouraging ethical behavior, and stopping abuses, starts with a unicameral legislature

As our founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing forms to which they are accustomed.”

Today, the citizenry of America is everywhere concerned with inefficiency and low ethical standards in government at all levels. In the case of many of our state governments, the pressure for change is mounting as so many legislatures are beset by common difficulties.

Chief among a litany of abusive practices revealed in the archives of our free press are:

1. Pay to Play – a practice whereby contributions and other support of political candidates buys favors, contracts, positions and other rewards. Sometimes the practice results in outright bribery.

2. Pork Barrel legislation – especially when the two legislative houses confer to reconcile their different versions of a bill. Special appropriations get tacked on to satisfy various causes and interests, without any public input or oversight.

3. Low Ethical Standards – actions and votes tainted by conflict of interest.

A personal survey of journalistic sources has noted – among various cases – the following examples of state government difficulties:

Tennessee, Stinging to the Tennessee Waltz – centers on a phony computer recycling business scheme with bribes to a number of legislators. The cases are ongoing.

New York Party Line – For decades the Senate has been Republican, the Assembly Democratic. With power concentrated in the leadership positions of both houses, voting is plainly and simply along party lines.

Texas Breakdown – startlingly inefficient with a touch of dysfunctionality at the session’s end. A huge public outcry against perceived exorbitant electric rates and unwarranted profiteering led to many bills aiming at reform. But strong lobbying reduced the docket to one remaining bill at the end, and it failed to pass. Dysfunctionality occurred when the speaker of the House refused to allow any motion to remove him from his position!

Oklahoma, Not in My House (Anymore) – starting July 1, state law prohibits legislators from receiving political contributions from lobbyists on the grounds of the capitol. But a bill to eliminate contributions altogether while the legislature is in session failed to receive a hearing.

Maine, Could It Happen Here? – there is a strong tradition of the Citizen Legislator, ordinary people accessible to and known by the community. In such a milieu, legislators may also work in industries for which they have committee oversight or voting responsibilities. This past session, a comprehensive ethical reform bill did not pass.

New Jersey Merry-Go-Round – currently dealing with serious cases of bribery and pork barreling in bill reconciliation between houses.

Florida – No Donuts Either! – no gifts at all can be bestowed to any legislator, not even a cup of coffee. Clearly, some voters got fed up.

If we are to right ourselves, then we must craft institutions that change the political culture. By their very construction they must act as deterrents to the less noble aspects of power and politics. No system can be perfect, the founders knew that and we know that. But we need not suffer the unsufferable for want of will.

Accordingly, it is prudent to consider the benefits of a nonpartisan unicameral legislature. This form exists only in Nebraska, but the concept of unicameralism is almost universally applied in local governments and elected boards across the land. The unicameral was first organized in 1937 to combat problems such as those listed above.

The strengths of the system are obvious. First and foremost it is non-partisan: no party whips and “leaders,” no vote by party line. According to Bill Avery, a Nebraska senator and University of Nebraska (Lincoln) government scholar, voting divides along issues, ideology, or, sometimes, geography. Majorities constantly change, all to the public good.

A second great advantage is the openness of the system. Lobbyists are not allowed on the floor, but all forms of media are allowed in all sessions. Filming provides a permanent and complete record of performance. Journalists are present at executive sessions.

A third advantage is enhanced accountability. There are no closed conference committees, no hidden lobby pressures, and no opportunity for pork barreling in 11th hour bill reconciliation sessions. With today’s Internet technology, it is easy to present live coverage and archiving of deliberations and votes so that later obfuscation and outright lying about a candidate’s record would be impossible.

Through required Internet polling and interactive reporting features, available in-home or at libraries and schools, everyone will know who their state representatives are and the legislators will better understand the will of the people.

And, as an added bonus, the cost of running a state government might well be sliced in half!

For this experiment to work, we need a culture of change in politics, political thinking and political participation. Through initiatives and referendums, by means of constitutional conventions and with blogs and pamphlets, citizens must seek redress.

In this time of tumult, it is the right and duty of citizens to bring forth institutions that will serve posterity.

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Silvio Laccetti is a professor of Social Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. E-mail him at slaccett@stevens.edu.

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