When Nebraskans adopted the model of the Unicameral Legislature in 1934, one of the arguments in favor of the change was legislative efficiency. George Norris found the bicameral system as inefficient. The failure of the 1933 Legislature to address prohibition, tax reform and appropriations “left a generally bad impression” among Nebraskans. Voters, facing the financial pressures of the Great Depression, demanded efficiency from state government and expected a responsive and adaptive Legislature.
With striking echoes of the upheaval that led to the creation of the unicameral system, Nebraskans again are frustrated 85 years later at the failure of the Nebraska Legislature to address tax reform and many other issues. At the root of much of the legislative inaction is the increased use of the filibuster for obstructing the legislative process.
Nebraska would be wise to look at other states that effectively use the filibuster in moderation through common sense rules.
You won’t find “filibuster” in the rules of the Nebraska Legislature. The term is used to describe a political tactic to extend debate with the intention of preventing a vote on a bill. Using various procedural motions, senators consume legislative time allocated to the floor debate of a bill, thereby preventing an up or down vote on the merits of the legislation. In order to overcome a filibuster, a cloture motion, which is a motion to cease debate, must pass. In Nebraska, a cloture motion requires a two-thirds majority, or 33 of the 49 senators voting to cease debate and vote on the underlying bill.
Use of the filibuster is an important tool to allow minority interests in the Legislature to be heard. However, the purpose of extended debate is to allow the minority extra time to convince the majority of its position.
Almost all states that permit extended debate have strict rules of conduct.
Discussion during the filibuster must be germane to the legislation at hand. In many states, debate is ceased if legislators deviate from a strict focus on the bill as few as three times. In Texas, legislators can’t eat, drink, use the restroom, sit, or even lean against their desk during a filibuster.
All states that allow filibusters have mechanisms to vote to end debate. Most states require a simple majority, but Nebraska requires a two-thirds affirmative vote of the entire Legislature. This threshold is higher than even an override of a gubernatorial veto.
Nebraskans would be wise to carefully examine the rules in practice in the 49 other states that effectively protect the ability of minority interests to be represented without the needless gridlock experienced in Nebraska.
When the 1933 Nebraska Legislature failed to adapt to the needs of Nebraskans, it spurred a successful ballot initiative intended to improve the efficiency of state government. If the Nebraska Legislature continues to be stalled on important tax reform and spending provisions by the obstruction of a small minority, citizens may need to look to history as a path toward a more effective legislative future.
Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell represents District 38 in the Nebraska Legislature. The district encompasses southwest Buffalo County and all of Clay, Franklin, Kearney, Nuckolls, Phelps and Webster counties.