In Honor of July 4th, Let's Go Unicameral?

Happy Independence Day to you! For many of us the holiday means fireworks, grilling and those miniature plastic flags that seem to pop up everywhere. It also offers a moment to reflect on the structure (or lack thereof) of our government.

For all of the problems we have, will, and are facing, our founders did a remarkable job of structuring a government replete with checks and balances. The drafters of the California constitution certainly thought so, as they, like the founders of the U.S., included not one, but two legislative houses.

But the question of the day is, do we need a two-house legislature? Or put another way, should we go unicameral? Nebraska has done it.

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I do not endeavor to lay out an exhaustive list of the benefits and detriments of such a drastic shift to California's government--I will merely hit but a few of the highlights.

Weighing in on the "pro" side, moving to one legislative house could mean a more efficient, transparent, and even democratic system of government. Put another way, having just one legislative house could reduce waste and redundancy in our legislative process.

As we have seen with the latest round of budget negotiations (and probably decades of negotiations before that), a two-house government allows members of each legislative house to play a few rounds of a little something called the "blame game." Like a never-ending game of ping pong, the public watches as members of each house try to pass the blame of less than ideal legislation back on the other house.

On the other hand, a two-house legislature can foster more deliberation, and can check rash inclinations. The primary purpose of a system of two legislative houses is to put a check on the majority.

However, it is worth questioning whether our current model truly serves that deliberative function. For instance other than the fact that it is twice the size of the upper house, what is the real difference between the state assembly and the state senate? Members of each house are elected according to the principle of one-person- one-vote. A cynic would say that thanks to term limits the assembly is a body of legislators waiting to become state senators, while the senate is a legislative body waiting to become members of congress.

One thing to think about, if we do want to move to a unicameral legislature, such a transformation of our system of government does not mean that we should reduce the number of our representatives. As it stands, California has the largest constituent-to-representative ratio in the country. Each of our 40 state senators represent close to one million people, and therefore our 80 assembly members represent half that many people.

Hence dare I say it would likely be a good idea to employ a few more of those unpopular folks we call legislators? That way each of them would represent fewer of us, and could be more responsive to our needs.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Cayusa. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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