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This past Thursday the balcony was full of fourth grade students visiting the Unicameral. As he often does during debate, Senator Ernie Chambers made disparaging remarks about the bible, Christianity, and made disgusting references to female anatomy. In response, the chaperons for the school children took them out of the balcony. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this has happened.
This behavior rightfully outrages my constituents and I agree with them. The bottom line is there is a rule that is supposed to prohibit such things, but it effectively can’t be used. Let me explain what the problem is.
Our State Constitution says the Legislature will make its own “rules.” The rules say a senator “…shall confine his or her remarks to the question before the Legislature.” This rule is broken every day by any number of different Senators. Rule 2, Section 8, “Transgression of Rules, Call Member to Order” is the rule that is supposed to enforce order in the body. The rule is so vague it can’t be enforced. The rule requires the legislature to answer two questions. (1) Whether or not a senator is out of order is a simple majority vote without debate. (2) The question of the consequences for breaking the rule IS DEBATABLE. For example, the consequence could be a senator not allowed to speak for the rest of the legislative day. This debate would be endless because there isn’t 33 votes to end a filibuster over the question of consequences. Each Senator would argue to maintain their freedom to say to whatever they want in debate on the floor.
In researching this I have found the wording of this rule has been this way over 40 years. Our rules are based on “Mason’s Rules of Order” as many State legislatures are, but Nebraska is unique. Since 1937, the traditions governing debate have evolved in our Unicameral system in a way that encouraged the most “full and fair” debate possible. Compared to every other State, Senators in Nebraska have MUCH greater freedom to express themselves on the floor. No one I know of has ever heard of a successful use of Rule 2, Section 8. I think we need to change it so it can be used, but we need to be careful what we wish for. That said, I think the right balance can be found.
Rules are reviewed and adopted for each new legislature, so we will have a chance to debate/revise them in January 2019 at the beginning of the 106th legislature. Any change to Rule 2, Section 8 to make it enforceable will be seen as an effort to chill political speech. They will say it threatens full and fair debate. I would argue the change is needed as we now live in a different age. Political discourse has turned ugly and course. The restraints that modesty and manners once had on the etiquette of public speech are un-done today. Changing this rule is larger than just one senator and really addresses the Legislature as an institution. I think the change we need reflects how our society has changed.
I believe we can enforce civility and decorum in our legislature. We also can protect our unique tradition of giving Senators the most latitude of any State legislature in the country. It’s darn sure worth trying. We shouldn’t have to be worried about what grade school kids might hear when they come to watch the legislature in session.
The “Rules of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature” I made reference to can be found here:
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at; firstname.lastname@example.org. Mail a letter to; Sen. Tom Brewer, Room #1202, P.O. Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509 or call us at (402) 471-2628.