Speaker of the Legislature



    In last month’s article, we explored the role of United States speaker of the House. The corresponding newsletter promised that we would bring it to a more local level in November. To help make good on that promise, VIP interviewed Nebraska’s speaker of the Legislature, Senator John Arch. We covered a few different topics in our interview, but the main focus was, “What makes the Nebraska State Legislature and, more specifically, what makes the role of speaker distinct from other states?” And that will be the emphasis of our November article.  

    While the operation of each state government differs slightly, all states except Nebraska generally follow the pattern of the federal Congress. Because of the extremely unique structure of the Nebraska Unicameral, there are many fundamental differences in our processes. According to Speaker Arch, the way our legislature is structured makes the role of speaker “significantly different from other states.”  

    In other states, the speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the legislature, and his roles and authorities closely emulate those of the United States speaker. Because of this structure, the position of speaker in other states is “very powerful,” says Speaker Arch. He outlined some of the powers of the speaker in other states as follows: “They will appoint chairs to committees; they will decide whether a bill is ever heard in committee; they actually schedule committee bills; they [can] remove a chairman from a committee chair position in the middle of the session if the chairman does not support the role of the speaker and the direction of the speaker; they will decide who gets called on the floor (who has the ability to speak).”  

    The duties explained above make this a very influential position, similar to the U.S. speaker of the House. However, the role of speaker of the Nebraska Legislature does not conform as closely to this example as other states.  

    The speaker of the Nebraska Legislature is selected in similar fashion to the federal speaker of the House. At the start of odd-number-year regular sessions, the speaker is elected by secret ballot. Also elected at this time is the chairperson of Committee on Committees, chairperson of the Executive Board, vice chairperson of the Executive Board, and the 6 members who will make up the Executive Board. We will touch on each of these positions later on.  

    Below we will discuss the dissimilarities in the Nebraska legislative structure, and detail how each of these differences affect the role of speaker.  

    1. The Nebraska speaker is not the presiding officer of the Legislature  

    This responsibility is granted to the lieutenant governor in the Nebraska Constitution, but falls to the speaker (or his/her designee) in cases where the lieutenant governor cannot be present. The role of the presiding officer is to recognize senators who are next in the queue and authorized to speak. If the speaker is not serving as the presiding officer, during discussion on the floor, the speaker represents his district and state, same as all other members of the Legislature, while managing the day’s agenda.  

    2. Setting the legislative agenda

    According to Speaker Arch, this is the “primary responsibility of the speaker” in Nebraska. As we will discuss below, all bills are heard in committee in Nebraska, but the speaker has the role of scheduling the bills that are discussed on the floor. This schedule will be largely influenced by “priority bill” designations, which we will explain more later.  

    3. The Nebraska Legislature does not have party caucuses

    Speaker Arch greatly stressed the importance of this point in relation to the proceedings of the Legislature and the role of the speaker. In other states where there are partisan legislatures, “the speaker [is] in charge of the policy issues of the majority party, because the majority party would elect the speaker into that position.” About the Nebraska Legislature, however, Speaker Arch explained that it “is not a partisan legislature. The speaker really doesn't drive policy in the legislature in Nebraska.” Speaker Arch emphasized many times that the role of the speaker is not to “drive policy,” but to “maintain relationships” between the senators.  

    4. Assigning committee seats and bills - The Executive Committee

    In the United States Congress and in many other states, the speaker is the one who appoints committee chairs and assigns bills to committees. As mentioned above, the speaker in some other states can control whether or not certain bills are heard in committee. But in the Nebraska Legislature, all bills are heard in committee. This is a huge difference that ensures all voices are heard, and all proposed ideas are considered.  

    The speaker of the Nebraska Legislature also does not have authority to appoint or remove committee members, and does not assign bills to committee. The Legislature’s Committee on Committees has the responsibility of assigning committee members while the Executive Board refers bills to the appropriate standing committee. As alluded to before, the chairman, vice chairman, and members of this committee are elected every two years by the members of the Legislature. This dispersing of power to a committee prevents a single person from exercising excessive power over the process of legislation. The guidelines laid out in Rules of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature regarding the Executive Board ensure that members are selected from different regions, and one area is not underrepresented.  

    5. Priority bills

    Every session, each senator gets one priority bill, each committee gets two, and the speaker may designate up to twenty-five priority bills. Speaker Arch explained that the priority bill designations from the speaker are usually used for a few specific types of bills: “generally, those priority bills are those types of bills that are necessary for the running of government. We need to, for instance, make sure that we change our language to be in compliance with federal language that changed, so we need to change a statute.… You see, generally, the type of bills that have broad support, non controversial.”  

    Another example he gave was, “when maybe a bill passed that we didn't understand the full implications and consequences, and we need to tweak that bill.” It would be necessary in this case to quickly pass a bill that rectifies a clear, accidental problem caused by previous legislation.“ So the speaker is overseeing, making sure that the bills that really need to be heard and passed [are heard], because of timeliness issues or compliance with federal regulations or something [from the] previous year.”  

    Speaker Arch emphasized that priority bills in Nebraska were not to be used by the speaker to ram through his own policy. Instead, they are for facilitating a more streamlined legislative process. “Process, certainly, more than policy.”

    The Nebraska Legislature is not for career politicians

    A state senator may not serve more than two consecutive terms in Nebraska. After serving for two terms, a senator must wait four years before he or she may run again. This greatly contributes to the decentralization of power in the Legislature, and prevents anyone from making a career out of lawmaking.  

    Nebraska senators are only paid $12,000 per year. Even in a short legislative session, this would come out to very modest pay if calculated hourly. Not one of our senators is in it for the money. They are all making some form of sacrifice to be in that chamber. Because of this, Speaker Arch says that we have a “citizen legislature” and that it is “not a profession.”  

    Speaker Arch spoke to specific sacrifices made by Nebraska senators in this way: “these are people who care enough to sacrifice financially; in some cases, their careers…” as well as “time away from family.” Our senators “come to a difficult environment because they care.”

    For Speaker Arch, it is to make Nebraska a better place for his grandchildren. He wants to ensure that future generations can have families and good jobs. He says that it is common to hear very similar things from our senators.

    While there are many differing political views, all our senators go to Lincoln for the same reason: to make the state of Nebraska a better place for the future. Everyone is there to solve the same problems. The differences are only in terms of how to get there.

    Relationships over Policy

    Speaker Arch firmly stated that, “I have no doubt that it [the Nebraska legislative structure] is the best in the world,” and he repeated this sentiment many times in our discussion. He says that, “in general, the rules of our legislature are very deferential to giving voice to opposing views.” In our legislature, it is not about pushing through the most legislation possible, but putting forth the best possible legislation, while fostering and maintaining relationships.  

    The relational role of the speaker of the Nebraska Legislature is a concept that Speaker Arch stressed repeatedly. The contrast between Nebraska and other states on this topic is best illustrated by a story shared by Speaker Arch. “I have gone to a couple of speaker conferences with other states. I've asked the question, for instance, on filibusters, ‘How do you handle filibusters?’ And the other speakers would look at me and say, ‘I just tell them they're done.’” According to Speaker Arch, “that just has not been the tradition in Nebraska.”  

    In the words of Speaker Arch, the structure of the Nebraska Legislature “requires” a relationship-based approach to legislation, rather than a policy-driven approach. The measure of success in our legislature is not volume of legislation, but unity and cooperation. The Nebraska Legislature, through its unique structure and the role of its speaker, is a model that sharply contrasts the rest of the country.   

    research and writing by Stephen Fox