Monday, March 14, 2011

Bigger or smaller chambers?

Dan Smith points me to this recent item in Stateline:
Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral Legislature, and lawmakers there are debating what size it should be. Competing bills call for increasing or decreasing the number of seats. Senator Bob Krist would like to decrease the number from 49 to 45 in order to save money. But Kate Sullivan would like to see Western Nebraska acquire an additional seat, making the Legislature an even 50. Minnesota, too, is debating its size. Bills in both chambers would eliminate 11 Senate and 22 House seats; currently the House has 134 seats and the Senate 67.
As it happens, I was recently speaking with someone in Nebraska who used to be very involved in the state government and is highly critical of the small size of the legislature there. He argued that having only 49 legislators makes it very easy for lobbyists to control the place. It's easy for them to know every legislator quite well and to build majority coalitions.

Personally, I would have thought the opposite would be true. A small legislature means that reporters and voters can relatively easily follow events in the chamber, which makes things somewhat harder for lobbyists, who thrive on voter ignorance.* A very large legislature, spread across multiple chambers, however, provides lots of different players with different preferences and lots of barely visible veto points.

It may be that a small legislature is good for lobbyists who are trying to push legislation through, while a largely legislature is good for lobbyists who are trying to stop legislation.

At any rate, it sounds like the proposals currently under consideration in Nebraska wouldn't affect legislative performance all that much, although one could certainly see how they matter for representation of groups and areas that currently feel marginalized.

*I can see how this phrase might sound pejorative toward lobbyists. I certainly don't mean it that way. Nonetheless, there's a good deal of evidence suggesting that lobbyists are more powerful when voters have a harder time paying attention to politics. Legislators are understandably less likely to vote the way a powerful lobby wants them to if they believe there will be electoral consequences for it, and that can only happen when voters have information about their roll call records.

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