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One of the rules we are currently following in the Nebraska legislature is plainly unconstitutional and it needs to be changed in the next session. The beginning of first sessions is when a motion to change the rules is in order.
Rule 3, Section 8 reads, “The chairperson of each standing and select committee shall be selected by secret ballot on the floor of the Legislature.”
The Nebraska Constitution says:
“Article III, Section 11. Legislative journal; vote viva voce; open doors; committee votes.
The Legislature shall keep a journal of its proceedings and publish them, except such parts as may require secrecy, and the yeas and nays of the members on any question shall at the desire of any one of them be entered on the journal. All votes shall be viva voce. The doors of the Legislature and of the committees of the Legislature shall be open, except when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret. The yeas and nays of each member of any committee of the Legislature shall be recorded and published on any question in committee to advance or to indefinitely postpone any bill.”
One of the most important votes an elected member of the legislature can cast is their vote for the chairman of the fourteen standing committees. The Nebraska Unicameral Legislature is designed around the “weak speaker” model. The speaker has twenty-five priorities he or she can use, and they also control the agenda. Besides that, the speaker has no control over what is voted-out of a committee to the floor for debate. In our system, the committee chairs control most of the political power in the body. I cannot imagine a more important vote the constituents of the elected member would like to know about.
I’m told that the practice of secret ballots began sometime in the 1970s, so it wasn’t always like this. The argument behind doing it is simple: Senators who ran their campaigns as conservative Republicans can vote for a liberal for a committee chair position without their constituents’ knowledge. People on the political left will say the secret ballot for the committee chairs is essential for our unique “non-partisan” unicameral to function as George Norris designed.
How is concealing information about how an elected member of the legislature voted ever a good thing? It isn’t.
The briefest reading of history will reveal Sen. Norris’s thoughts on the matter. There is a large body of scholarly work on the topic of what George Norris thought of transparency in government. He would be rolling in his grave if he knew about this corrupt practice. Secret ballot for committee chairs has nothing whatsoever to do with our special unicameral system. Norris once said: “To get good government and to retain it, it is necessary that a liberty-loving, educated, intelligent people should be ever watchful, to carefully guard and protect their rights and liberties.”
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