The Best Small Government Position is the Reverse Nebraska

On March 31, Missouri State Representative Travis Fitzwater (R-Holts Summit) proposed an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that would reduce the size of our General Assembly. (It’s also not his first time in this particular rodeo.)

Plenty of conservatives talk about reducing the size of government; very few actually do it. The genius of Rep. Fitzwater’s plan is that it reduces the size of the state government in about the most literal way possible. That should send a thrill up the leg of all serious haters of our state overlords.

His plan would reduce the size of the Missouri House of Representatives from a bloaty 163 members to a more svelte 136. The Missouri Senate, currently at thirty-four members, would apparently remain the same.

But I say— Why stop there? Why not reduce the size of the Missouri House to a nice round number, like… zero?

Fitzwater’s logic is sound, even if he doesn’t go far enough for my tastes. Missouri’s upper and lower houses total 197 combined members, which is the seventh largest number of legislators of any state. Meanwhile, we are only eighteenth in population among the various states. We are apparently somewhat overrepresented, and this presents an opportunity to trim some fat.

It could be worse. New Hampshire has a whopping 424 souls in their state house. Apparently, serving in their House of Representatives is akin to being an alderman or city councilman in other parts of America. When you move to the Granite State, maybe a seat in the legislature is part of the welcome package.

All but one state has two legislative chambers, usually a lower (House of Representatives) and an upper (Senate), which mirrors our federal makeup.

But why? Are two chambers really necessary at the state level?

The federal government can easily justify having two chambers because they are populated differently and serve different functions. The U.S. House of Representatives is (allegedly) the “people’s house” and is apportioned by population. The U.S. Senate is based on a completely different setup, giving each state two senators regardless of population. (Those seats used to be elected by the various state houses, until the abomination that is the 17th Amendment.) This makes the Senate remarkably un-democratic, but it was one of the only ways to get the smaller states to sign on with the Constitution. Plus, democracy is a bit overrated anyway.

Also, the two federal chambers have distinctly different duties and powers. So while both chambers stink on ice most days, they can ultimately justify their separate existences.

Similarly, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has two houses and can (kind of) justify it. The lower house, the House of Commons, holds most the power and is elected according to population. The upper house, the House of Lords, is populated according to heredity (ugh), appointment, or because you hold some other special function in the government. So while most red-blooded Americans find the concept of royalty and nobility to be total asinine bullshit, the Brits can at least explain the existence of both houses while keeping a straight face (or a stiff upper lip, if you prefer).

The existence of two chambers on the state level might make sense if the upper chamber had a different method of selecting their members than the lower chamber. Say, for example, that each county got to elect or appoint one state senator regardless of that county’s population.

Which is exactly what some states used to do with their upper houses. I even proposed such a thing for our State Senate in my quixotic run for a seat in that august institution in 2004. (To be fair, my campaign was light on policy and heavy on comic relief. It was largely fueled by my distaste for the GOP candidate, a former college classmate who I never entirely cottoned to. Compared to the current state GOP, however, he looks positively ravishing in retrospect.)

What I didn’t know at the time was that states couldn’t do that anymore, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Reynolds v. Sims decision. Both houses of every state legislature must be apportioned by population. Which essentially makes one house or the other completely redundant.

So why stop at reducing the number of seats? Why not get rid of one house altogether?

Our friends in Nebraska figured this out even well before Reynolds v. Sims. They are the sole state that only has one legislative chamber, which they refer to as (perhaps not creatively) as “the Unicameral.” The lower house was abolished and only the state senate remained. Members are also technically non-partisan, though their political affiliations are generally public knowledge.

(Of course, I can never talk about Nebraska without giving a shout out to Libertarian Party member and former state senator Laura Ebke!)

If nothing else, you save some money. Granted, it’s not like the legislators are really making big coin, as both Missouri state reps and Missouri state senators only pull in $35,915.00 per year. (Most of them have other jobs, unless they’re a Joe Biden type who has almost never held a private sector job.) That’s not a huge amount of money, but it is if you look at it as part-time work and then multiply by 163. That’s 5.85 million simoleons, Holmes. Plus benefits and such.

Any astute businessman realizes redundancies when he or she sees them. The first thing most businesses do after a merger or acquisition is to identify redundancies and eliminate them. Why not in the General Assembly itself?

To be fair, there are some arguments in favor of having two houses, even if both are elected according to population:

  • The lower house (like the U.S. House) is likely to be perceived as being more accessible to the people.
  • Having two houses makes it, at least theoretically, harder to pass legislation. Especially if the chambers are controlled by different parties. However, as blue states get bluer and red states get redder, that phenomenon has become rare. Currently, only two state legislatures are split between one Democratic controlled chamber and one Republican controlled chamber. (Other factors besides party affiliation could conceivably cause friction between an upper and lower house even if they are controlled by the same party, but such things are likely speed bumps more than anything else.)
  • Reducing the number of legislators, or eliminating one house altogether, does not really diminish the power of the state. It simply reduces the number of people who hold that power. Which is wonderful if you’re one of those people. Maybe not so good for the rest of us.

Still, I would like to see all fifty states and the various territories switch to a unicameral legislature. Just on principle. But as a compromise, perhaps make it one somewhat larger house, maybe eliminating their state senates instead of their lower chambers. Call it a “reverse Nebraska” (which sounds oddly dirty for some reason).

If Rep. Fitzwater wants to make a really big splash, why not go for that? Eliminate a chamber, toss out some legislators, and let God sort it out. If it’s their only job, tough. Let them try to live off stimulus payments and “enhanced” unemployment benefits like so many of their constituents.

That sends a thrill up my leg, indeed. But I’m kinky when it comes to such erotic topics as throwing the elected bums out.

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