Which governs better: one house or two?

All it the perpetual pursuit of governmental perfection.

There was the Magna Carta in 1215, the US Constitution in 1789, and now, thanks to crusading reformer Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, there's a new-old question bubbling on the American political landscape: Is one legislative house better than two?

Now at first glance this may seem like inconsequential political theory. But hang on. The principles at stake here are accountability, fairness, efficiency, and the overall ethical tenor of government.

And ever since Governor Ventura began pushing to eliminate one of his state's houses, a great debate has emerged over which system - one house or two - safeguards each of these principles best.

It's also a debate that has sent streams of politicians, and a few reporters, here to the seldom-visited capitol of Nebraska. That's because it alone among US states has a one-house, or unicameral, legislature.

In fact, take one look at Nebraska's statehouse and you know something's different. Most Capitols have broad, wide domes, buildings that fit well with the long and wide-ranging debates taking place inside them. Not Nebraska's. It looks more like a corporate skyscraper. This 1930s monolith bespeaks the efficiency and unity of purpose that proponents say mark the workings of a one-house legislature.

In fact, efficiency is one of the chief benefits of a unicameral system, these backers say. And it was the cost-saving argument that finally persuaded Depression-stricken Nebraskans in 1934 to vote for the new system.

Many other states have considered a similar change. In fact, since 1993, unicameral proposals have been introduced in at least 14 states. California and Oregon have pondered them most seriously.

In Nebraska, a bill is simply introduced, debated, and if passed, goes to the governor for signature. In bicameral systems, bills are introduced and then bounce back and forth between houses until a compromise bill is hammered out. Then it goes to the governor for approval.

To unicameralists, that just doesn't make sense in today's fast-paced economy. Or as Ventura puts it in his best populist growl, "Why pay two groups of people to do the exact same job? That doesn't happen in business, so why should it happen in government?"

There does seem to be some evidence that unicamerals are more efficient. Unlike many other states, Nebraska has never had a budget impasse that disrupted state functions. Backers of the Minnesota plan, meanwhile, say the state could save time, as well as up to $20 million a year by trimming what they call legislative fat.

Yet supporters of a bicameral system say that's being penny-wise and pound foolish, and that the old principle of "two heads are better than one" applies to legislatures too.

Texas A&M political science professor James Rogers puts it this way: The "acoustic separation" in bicameral systems - separate sets of ideas bouncing off separate sets of walls - adds to the overall quality of the debate and of the final legislation.

In fact, he says unicameral legislatures tend to produce more legislation that benefits some people and costs others, for instance, favoring city dwellers at the expense of farmers. Besides efficiency, the other basic argument for unicameral systems is that they increase legislators' accountability to the electorate - and make the process more transparent.

The great evil of bicamerals, critics say, is the conference committee - the small group of legislators that hashes out the differences between the two houses' legislation. Often, critics say, they morph a bill into an unrecognizable shadow of its former self. Or they add new provisions that benefit only themselves. Because the full houses can only vote up or down on the committee's decision, the new provisions often pass.

But bicameralists point out that open-meeting laws and new court restrictions on conference committees, including in Minnesota, have largely rid state legislatures of shady back-room deals. Still, that mistrust of legislators remains. In the Nebraska system, "you know who is responsible" for any changes to legislation, says longtime state Sen. Chris Beutler, who represents Lincoln in the nonpartisan legislature. "But with conference committees, you don't know who scrambled the eggs."

Ultimately, much of the debate is based on ideology and rhetoric. And it doesn't fall along traditional party lines: In Minnesota, two former Republican Party chairmen are leading the charge on opposite sides of the issue. Ventura also faces a tough fight to get it passed with an electorate that does not share his vision. But still, the debate is part of an ever-evolving line of ideas to find the perfect governmental structure.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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