The Nebraska Legislature is right to select the leaders of its committees on the basis of merit, not party affiliation.
Two central reasons make that a sensible approach.
First, the Legislature is officially nonpartisan and commendably promotes a culture that judges policy ideas based on their merit. Unlike states where strict partisanship determines things, Nebraska lawmakers, regardless of party, have an equal opportunity to introduce legislation and make the case for it at a public hearing. Each senator, whether Republican, Democrat or independent, is allowed to prioritize one bill each session.
There’s another, common-sense reason for keeping partisanship out of selecting committee leaders: The committees handle complex, important work, and their leaders need to have the background knowledge, thoughtfulness and skill set to manage the job capably.
That’s why the Legislature, to its credit, selects its committee chairmen and chairwomen by secret ballot. Calls from the Nebraska Republican Party to overturn that system and make mere partisanship the basis for selection would harm the Legislature and, in turn, the state.
Instead, allow individual senators to make the case for themselves, regardless of party, rather than coasting into a leadership post merely because they have a particular letter — R or D or I (for independent) — behind their name to denote political affiliation. Candidates for committee posts need to earn those leadership opportunities through demonstrations of their capabilities.
At present, the partisan breakdown of the Legislature’s committee chairs is nine Republicans, five Democrats and one independent. Republicans currently make up 33 of the Legislature’s members. In January, when the new Legislature is sworn in, they will retain a strong majority, though their number will fall to 30.
Choosing committee leaders merely by partisan affiliation — that is, automatically denying chairmanships to members in the political minority — would in some cases wall off capable candidates from consideration.
An example is Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, current chairman of the Retirement Systems Committee. Before being elected chairman, he had demonstrated a detailed understanding of retirement issues as the committee’s vice chairman and before that as a legislative aide.
Nordquist is a Democrat, and his years of experience in working on Nebraska retirement issues were clearly a big reason he was chosen by his peers — a majority of whom are Republicans — to head the committee. A selection based on merit.
But if the Legislature’s Republicans were required to vote only for Republicans, Nordquist wouldn’t even have been considered for the chairmanship.
The current Legislature has been blessed with strong committee leadership regardless of party. On the Republican side, to cite only two examples, Sens. Lavon Heidemann at Appropriations and Chris Langemeier at Natural Resources demonstrated impressive ability to handle complex issues and reach constructive agreement. On the Democratic side, examples of respected committee leaders include Bill Avery at Government, Military and Veterans Affairs and Amanda McGill at Urban Affairs.
The Legislature needs to be free to choose its committee leaders as its members see fit. There is no reason to overturn a system that has served the Legislature and the state well.