A one-house Legislature

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.

As the state that once embodied the American dream has devolved into an American nightmare, Californians have begun looking for ways to rescue their state from its own dysfunction. We are awash in constitutional proposals, some sensible (eliminating the Legislature’s two-thirds-vote requirement for passing a budget or raising taxes; abolishing term limits), some not (enacting a flat tax).

In this spirit of reinvention, then, permit me a few modest queries: Why in the world do we have a two-house Legislature?

What does the state Senate do that the Assembly doesn’t, and vice versa? In the name of fostering transparency, ending gridlock, curtailing backroom deals and creating a more responsive government, why doesn’t California just abolish the Senate and create a larger Assembly?


Time was when the Assembly and the Senate, in California and every other state but one (Nebraska has had a unicameral legislature since 1937), were actually organized along separate lines -- the lower house by population, the upper house by geography. Just as each state, regardless of size, had equal representation in the U.S. Senate, so state Senates were organized to give counties, regardless of population, roughly equal representation.

As cities grew, however, rural areas were overrepresented and cities underrepresented, often by absurd margins. In the early 1960s, Los Angeles County, then home to 6 million people, was accorded one state senator (Democrat Richard Richards), as was one rural county then home to just 14,000 people. Indeed, while Richards alone represented 6 million Californians, the other 39 senators combined represented 9.7 million.

But in 1964, in the case of Reynolds vs. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that apportioning a state legislature into numerically unequal districts unconstitutionally violated the principle of “one person, one vote.” Henceforth, both houses of state legislatures were to be organized along identical lines. The raison d’etre for bicameral legislatures ceased to exist.

And how many states, confronted with this sudden redundancy of elective bodies, moved to consolidate their two houses into one? You guessed it: None. Abolishing an entire category of elective office proved as re- pulsive to small-government conservatives as it did to big-government liberals.

The result, in California today, is two functionally indistinguishable bodies. Senate districts (of which there are 40) are twice as large as Assembly districts (of which there are 80), but both kinds of districts have grown so large -- Senate districts are home to just under 1 million Californians; Assembly districts to just under half a million -- that election in either kind of district requires a multimillion-dollar campaign.

With term limits, members of the Assembly, once initially elected, can count on serving three two-year terms; senators serve two four-year terms. Assembly members, then, are not really closer to the grass roots than senators, nor are senators particularly more experienced than Assembly members.


The chief distinction of the Senate is that it can offer Assembly members a congenial district to run in once they’re termed out of the Assembly. And vice versa: Some termed-out state senators have then moved on to the Assembly.

So why not consolidate the two bodies into a larger one that reduces the size of the current districts? If the new Assembly had 120 members, each would represent a little more than 300,000 residents -- and (because there are already 120 members of the Legislature) this could be done at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Eliminating one house would also eliminate the possibility of behind-closed-doors mischief in the bicameral conference committees that now convene to reconcile the two houses’ versions of the same bill.

But why stop there?

In both Sacramento and Washington, our governments have become all checks-and-balances with no discernible forward motion. The two-thirds-vote requirement in the state Legislature and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate create a form of minority rule that both thwarts attempts to keep government responsive to changing social needs and negates the consequences of elections.

California needs a government capable of expanding, not decimating, the world’s greatest public university; of ensuring the health of its children, not throwing them off the rolls.

One move that could foster such a shift would be to change the post of governor from a directly elected one to a prime-ministerial one. A Californian would become governor when his or her party (or coalition of parties) attained a majority in the unicameral Legislature. State government would actually have a common purpose and the capacity to further its goals.

Such a move would run counter to the American tradition of the separation of powers, but as our public works and services fall behind those of European and other nations with parliamentary systems, it’s time to question how well such a separation really serves our country and our state in the competitive global economy of the 21st century.

It would be a bold move. And I remember a California that used to do bold things.