Celebrating Our Federal Republic – The Right Engle

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As we celebrate America’s Independence Day this week, it’s worth reflecting how far the country has come in its 241 years.

The very fact that we call it a single country would be a novelty to many of the Founders, who were frequently adamant about the ultimate independence of their states. The level of independence of member states was genuinely remarkable in its early days.

Until the issue was settled once and for all about four score and seven years later, internal affairs of states were essentially ignored by the federal authorities. Take the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-1842, in which Rhode Island essentially underwent a popular uprising and coup d’état against the elected governor and legislator. The response of the federal government in Washington, D.C. was essentially to shrug its shoulders and keep an eye on the situation. Imagine such latitude today!

The states were once much more different from each other than they are now. Culturally and politically, the various member states have become progressively more alike. That accelerated in the era of expanded federal authority, as well as during the entry of western states into the union (that did the legal equivalent of copy-and-paste of the state constitutions they remembered). Despite that, there are still a number of interesting examples of state government systems that deviate from the norm.

Here are some of the most interesting and unique features of government.

Nebraska: Lonely Home of Unicameralism

Nebraska is the only state with a legislature with just one chamber. It has the advantage of making legislation drafting and passage much more efficient, but obviously eschews the benefits (and hardships) of the bicameral system employed in every other state and at the federal level that allows for an internal check on and revision of laws before they are passed on to the Governor for signing into law.

The underlying premise of Nebraska’s legislature is efficiency and transparency. A smaller legislature with fewer secretive committees may be forced to be more open and responsive to the citizenry.

Maine: Representing Native Americans and Small Parties

Maine is unique for two reasons. The first has been an interesting feature of the state’s constitution for many years – the special representation of recognized Native American tribes in the state. Each of the recognized tribes has an observer seat reserved in Maine’s House of Representatives, similar to the House seat reserved for the District of Columbia in the federal legislature.

The second interesting feature of Maine is a recent development. The state has adopted an instant-runoff system in which voters rank candidates by preference rather than voting for just one. This allows second preferences to be counted if no single candidate gets a majority in the first round, which opens up a range of opportunities for smaller parties to contend, as well as for independents. It eliminates the notion that voting for a party other than Democrats and Republicans is a waste. Of all recent electoral law developments, Maine’s may be the most consequential for people fighting the two-party duopoly.

New Hampshire: Divided Executive and Massive Legislature

New Hampshire has one of the most fascinating governmental structures.

One reason for that is the sheer number of representatives in the legislature. The New Hampshire House of Representatives has 400 members, representing a population of 1.3 million. It is the second largest legislature in the world, after India’s national parliament, for one of the smallest states in the union. That level of representation makes representatives extremely responsive and makes politics exceptionally local. Because the electoral districts are so small, minor parties occasionally stand a chance. The current House includes three Libertarians, the most in the nation. Some small-government advocates might blanche at that number of legislators, fearing the cost of such an institution. But “New Hampshireites” are a frugal bunch; like in several states, the role of legislator is a part-time job that carries no pay besides limited travel expenses.

Another unique aspect of New Hampshire is its divided executive. Rather than vesting all power in the Governor, there is also a separately elected Executive Council, which has essential veto power over the Governor. A fitting additional check on executive power from a state known for its particular skepticism of government. As far a limited government goes, New Hampshire’s system is hard to beat.

Laboratories of Democracy

The reason these various ways of organizing state governments is interesting is because institutional organization directly impacts the way policy can be enacted. A strong executive obviously takes power from the legislature. Meanwhile a split executive like in New Hampshire gives tremendous power to the legislative branch. And electoral laws like Maine’s are sure to increase opportunities for independent candidates and smaller parties.

We should try to learn more about how neighboring states’ governments work and try to learn how to make our own systems better. Often institutions are left unchanged and experimentation fails to happen. Awareness of the diversity within our own nation might help us all.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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