Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
ST. PAUL, Minn.óBecause governing America in peace and prosperity
seems like child's play, the children--Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan and
others--have come out to play, using the Reform Party as their sandbox.
But Gov. Jesse Ventura, that party's foremost contribution to American
governance, is doing something serious.
He is campaigning to get the Legislature to submit to referendum a
constitutional amendment to establish a unicameral legislature. This is not a
good idea, but it is a better idea than most of Buchanan's and is one more
idea than Trump has revealed.
Ventura brings pugnacious populism to the task of getting Minnesota's
political class to cooperate in reducing the number of electoral offices. He
says that eliminating one legislative chamber would "streamline"
government, making it more transparent and less of a "maze" of choke
points. Unicameralism would make government more "efficient" and
intelligible to average citizens, would "re-connect" them to government and
"re-engage" them in policy-making by closing the "gap" between
government and the people.
All that is largely correct. Which is why unicameralism is a mistake.
The word "streamline" is a product of 19th-century enthusiasm for the
engineering values and mighty machinery of industrialism. It is jarring when
applied to what our 18th-century Founders created--limited government.
Granted, unicameralism was in use in the young Republic, and
bicameralism became orthodox for states in mimicry of the national
legislature, which was the result of the compromise between large and
small states that made the Constitution possible. Granted, the Framers
crafted the Constitution to create a national government more effective than
was possible under the Articles of Confederation.
But efficiency did not trump all other values. It ranked below liberty and
The political catechism of the Madisonian moment was approximately this:
What is the worst outcome of politics? Tyranny. To what form of tyranny
are democracies prey? Tyranny of the majority. Solution? Minimize the
likelihood of durable oppressive majorities by maximizing the number of
minorities--factions--that will coalesce only into unstable, transitory
Hence the revolution James Madison wrought in democratic theory:
Democracy, far from requiring a small, homogeneous, faction-free society,
will flourish in an "extensive" society with a saving multiplicity of factions.
Hence government's first duty (Federalist 10) is to protect the seedbed of
factions, the "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property."
Furthermore, the Constitution's separation of powers created a
government of checks and balances, replete with blocking mechanisms,
including supermajorities, vetoes, veto overrides, judicial review (it turns
out) and, not least important, bicameralism.
In 1934 Nebraska's U.S. Sen. George Norris, a Republican with a streak
of prairie radicalism, proposed that Nebraska become, which it did in
1937, the only state with a unicameral legislature. He emphasized, as
Ventura does, the supposedly baneful influence of conference committees
that reconcile differences between bills passed by a bicameral legislature's
two houses. In conference committees, critics charge, secrecy prevails and
But a smaller, one-house legislature may be more malleable for lobbyists.
Besides, if Ventura's complaint is valid--that most lobbyists are paid to
stop legislation, and that is easier under bicameralism--his complaint
actually is a compliment to bicameralism, which serves limited government.
Ventura believes that bicameralism encourages "posturing," whereby bad
bills are passed to please this or that constituency, with legislators knowing
that the bills will die in the other chamber or be fixed in conference
committee. But the alternative to bicameralism and posturing might be
unicameralism that inadequately filters bad legislation.
Ventura fondly remembers his days as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn.,
when city council meetings were televised on a local cable channel and "in
the dead of winter the door would fly open and a red-faced citizen would
walk in," hot to take issue with what the council was doing. Nevertheless,
the nation's Founders built constitutional distance between government and
the governed because the essence of deliberative democracy is
representation: The people do not decide issues, they decide who will
Ventura says unicameralism would make government both "responsive and
limited." However, that is an unlikely combination of attributes.
When Americans want something from government, and want it intensely
and protractedly, they usually get it. When they don't, they probably
shouldn't. But nowadays government, a seismograph trembling to tiny
tremors of appetites, is "responsive" to a fault.
Bicameralism is, as Ventura says, conducive to gridlock. But there are 6
billion people on this planet and about 5.7 billion of them would be better
off if they lived under governments more susceptible to gridlock. Gridlock
is not an American problem, it is an American
Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.
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