The Wall Street Journal Weighs In on Unicameral Legislatures
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article about something that we here at the Show-Me Institute have discussed previously: the idea of unicameral state legislatures. I mentioned this issue briefly in my “Government In Missouri” opus, and Josh wrote a blog post on the subject last year that lead to one of our better comment-section discussions.
Josh’s blog post adds important information that today’s WSJ article is missing. Many state legislatures used to be structured like the federal model, with a House based on population and a Senate based on the number of officials per county, or something like that. After the Supreme Court ruled that all public bodies had to be based on population (except the U.S. Senate), the purpose of having separate bodies declined.
So, how do you reconcile these potentially conflicting goals (which I assume many of you visiting this blog share, at least to some degree)?
- Greater efficiency in government, as measured by lower costs rather than by greater ease of passing laws.
- The desire for a wide range of viewpoints in government, i.e., enough elected officials that various viewpoints can be included. (Think Ron Paul and Nancy Pelosi both serving in the same House.)
- The knowledge that legislative bodies with more members spend more money. This is the “Law of 1/N,” a generally accepted rule of public choice economics.
- The desire to have a system in which it is difficult, not easy, to pass new laws or spend money.
I think points three and four are the real conflicts. I can imagine moving to a unicameral Missouri General Assembly, which would save significant operating costs and would allow for enough members to represent a variety of views. But, once established, it would need to have strict rules that would restrict the incentives to spend more money, but make it easier for the leadership to pass the laws they want (i.e., no filibuster); or, you could do without those rules and empower individual members in a way that would make passing new laws harder but also increase logrolling opportunities and incentives to spend more. (Passing laws and spending money don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Many laws that infringe on our freedoms don’t cost much, and most of the spending occurs within the budget process that every elected body will have.)
I think you can also achieve these goals if you are willing to sacrifice the second goal — a variety of viewpoints. A very small unicameral legislature with empowered individual officials could reduce the logrolling incentives to spend, and make it hard to pass new laws, but this situation would sacrifice the presence of more divergent views in favor of very large districts. However, if it had a very short session length (meeting for one month a year, say, or even just every other year), you might be able to accomplish these goals and also have a larger number of representatives. As with the number of members, time is an important constraint.
Most of the papers that support the statements above are not available for free online. You can read about them, though, and see the citations in sections three and four of my policy study.