“The North Dakota Senate is where good ideas go to die,” a member of the state House Republican caucus told me.
The sentiment isn’t surprising. There’s a lot of rivalry, and often not a lot of cooperation, between the two chambers. When Senator Dwight Cook’s oil tax reform bill failed in the House it wasn’t a marginal loss. Just about everybody in the chamber, including most Republicans, voted against it. This was seen by many state political observers as the House caucus getting in a poke at the Senate caucus.
And turnabout is fair play, it seems. When Senator Tim Flakoll decided to pour some gas on what was a simmering controversy over funding for school milk (one of the most absurd political spectacles of this session to date) by tacking it on to legislation in the Senate his intent was clear. He’s aiming to embarrass his colleagues in the House.
But you have to wonder, how does all this legislative infighting serve the people of North Dakota?
To be clear, I’m not one who measures success in public policy by the volume. When I hear of our national Congress being the “least productive” in history, that makes me happy. The legislative process should be rigorous to ensure broad consensus on new laws, though we shouldn’t pretend as though North Dakota’s legislature has any problem passing lots and lots of new laws. I’ve written before about the dramatic growth in the number of North Dakota laws on the books, and at the midpoint of the current legislative session House Majority Leader Al Carlson noted that the House and Senate combined passed more than 72% of the new laws put before them.
The separate chambers of the legislature don’t really act as much of a check in terms of growing government. But I do think they diminish the role of the legislature as a check on the power of the state’s other branches of government. The executive branch, the judicial branch (and, if you want to count it given their constitutional separation, the State Board of Higher Education) all have a leg up on the legislature not just because the lawmaking body is limited to just 80 days per legislative session but because the legislature doesn’t speak with unified voice. It is divided into two chambers that are often at odds with one another.
Which brings me to my question: Why not get rid of the state Senate?
The idea of a bicameral legislature at the national level was to give equal representation in law making to the people and to the sovereign state governments. Unfortunately that’s not the case any more. The 17th amendment took control of the Senate away from the states and made Senators popularly-elected, but I digress.
The need for a divided legislature simply doesn’t exist at the state level. At the federal level, the Senate was intended to act as a check on the legislative power of the popularly-elected House, but at the state level the popularly-elected Senate ends up being nothing more than a political rival for the popularly-elected House.
It’s pointless. It’s not only a completely unnecessary expense, but it adds a degree of political intrigue that is simply not needed.
I doubt that the idea of eliminating the state Senate would get much traction with North Dakotans. The state has a populist streak. We love electing people to office, and the state has more government per-capita than any other state in the union. I suspect the idea of eliminating an entire wing of the state legislature would be anathema to most.
But the fact remains that the State of North Dakota not only has little need for a bicameral legislature, but by dividing the legislative branch we weaken the ability of lawmakers to serve as a check and balance on other branches of state government.