Nebraska state senator Bill Avery represented Legislative District 28 (Lincoln) 2007-2015. A retired professor of politlical science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he wrote this essay to examine the ‘unwritten rules’ of the Nebraska Unicameral, the nation’s only one-house, officially nonpartisan state legislature.
The Nebraska Unicameral, like most other organized groups and institutions, has two sets of rules that govern how its members behave. On the one hand are the official rules that govern the formal legislative process. These are the written rules of the game. The second set of rules are informal, unwritten norms of behavior that are just as important, if not more so than the first. These rules perhaps are best described as “folkways,” or those standards of behavior that are usually known as customs and practices to which all senators are expected to conform.
Political Scientist Donald Matthews first identified the presence of folkways in the U.S. Senate more than fifty years ago. He argued that failure to abide by them can be detrimental to one’s effectiveness as a legislator. Other researchers have examined this topic in different settings and reached similar conclusions.
This article discusses the folkways of Nebraska’s one-house legislature and evaluates the role they play in shaping the influence of senators in the lawmaking process.
Probably the most widely recognized folkway, both within and outside the Nebraska Legislature, is the expectation that new senators will benefit from a period of time spent “learning the ropes,” before taking on highly visible activity in the chamber. Taking to the microphone, for example, to make major speeches early in one’s first year is frowned upon by more senior members. It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that senior senators generally agree it is wise for new members, at least for a time, to be “seen, but not heard.” New members are expected to listen and learn, speaking infrequently and then only after observing an appropriate period of apprenticeship.
This folkway, however, is not applied equally to all members. New members with prior experience in the Unicameral are exempted. They already have served their apprenticeship and may occasionally even succeed in being selected to a leadership position in their first year back.
Some evidence suggests that this folkway may be waning in importance. This is especially so in light of recent voter-imposed limitations on how many terms senators may serve. With only two terms in which to achieve one’s legislative objectives, senators may be less willing to wait before stepping forward to pursue their goals. Nonetheless, more senior members still can be observed grumbling from time to time when new members speak too often on too many topics.
Workhorses and Show Horses
Professional observers of legislative processes long have distinguished between two distinct types of legislators: workhorses and show horses. Legislators who covet public attention are more likely to become show horses. Those who want to gain the respect of their colleagues and get things done become workhorses. This holds true in Nebraska as well. After an extended and contentious debate in a recent session of the Unicameral, a new member on the losing side, but who had played a prominent role in the debate, reportedly commented: “I may have lost, but I’ll make the evening news.”
Senators who seem more interested in scoring political points, getting quoted in the newspapers and appearing on television, than they are in making sound public policy are viewed as show horses and are less likely to be effective.
Much of the daily routine of legislative work is highly detailed, dull, and boring. Despite that, one of the most entrenched ground rules of the Nebraska Unicameral is that members will attend to these unrewarding tasks on a daily basis. Not everything necessary to making good policy is exciting, but it needs to be done and senators are expected to do it.
One particularly tiring task involves long hours spent listening to often repetitive testimony at public hearings on proposed legislation. The Unicameral is one of a limited number of legislative bodies in America to require that every bill introduced receive a public hearing. This is one of the many practices of the Nebraska Unicameral that make it arguably the most open and transparent legislature in the country.
Members take pride in the distinctiveness of its procedures and most work hard to preserve and protect them. Senators who take a casual approach toward doing their share of routine work—for instance, habitually departing hearings early, leaving others to do the work in their absence—face disapproval and risk losing the respect of their colleagues.
Some of the Unicameral’s most effective members may be senators many Nebraskans have heard little about. They diligently go about their work, day after day, receiving little public attention in the process. They make the legislative process work more smoothly and they get things done….
Read the rest of the article, from the Spring 2013 issue of Nebraska History (PDF).