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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Unique Among 50

Nebraska’s Unicameral

The great Nebraska Senator George Norris (that’s him in the photo) had many ideas during his long years of public service. His ideas and his enduring reputation for decency and integrity mark him as one of the truly great figures in American politics and one of the best ever U.S. Senators.

Among other things, Norris was the “Father of the TVA” – the Tennessee Valley Authority. Unusual for a man from the prairie land of McCook, Nebraska to care about rural economic development in the American south, but Norris was a different kind of senator. He didn’t believe auto builder Henry Ford should gain control of the vast hydropower resources in the Tennessee Valley and fought for public development of the resource. Norris Dam, a TVA project, carries his name. Norris also successfully pushed the Rural Electrification Act, instrumental in bringing electricity to much of rural American.

A progressive Republican, Norris was a huge supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1936, he ran as an Independent and FDR famously said: “If I were a citizen of Nebraska, regardless of what party I belonged to, I would not allow George Norris to retire from the U. S. Senate.”

One of Norris’s most interesting ideas resulted in my home state of Nebraska having the only one house, non-partisan state legislature in the nation. Nebraskans call it simply “the unicameral.”

Norris personally conceived of the idea of eliminating one house of the state legislature – he said it was just inefficient and a wasteful duplication to have two houses doing the same thing – and, after he campaigned for the idea statewide working through two sets of tires, Nebraska voters overwhelming approved the unicameral legislature in 1934. The single house has 49 members who are called Senators. The 35-year-old Speaker of the Nebraska legislature was recently profiled in TIME magazine as one of the nation’s 40 top leaders under 40 years of age.

The Nebraska system is far from perfect. No political system is. But the next time you read of a huge fight between the House and the Senate in your legislature, and those fights happen in 49 states, you’ll not be reading about Nebraska. At least, George Norris took care of that problem.

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