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Legislative Organization and Procedures

The NCSL Center for Legislative Studies conducts research and provides assistance on key issues regarding legislative organization and procedure, and a few are highlighted below. 

Legislative Organization, Size and Structure

There is no "off the shelf" formula for creating a state legislature, and legislative assemblies in the United States illustrate the wide variety of organizational patterns.

State legislatures vary in size, and they currently range from 49 to 424 total members.  Legislative size has not remained static, however; numerous legislatures have changed size in the past four decades.  

A legislature may be divided into a Senate and House or Assembly (bicameral), or it may have only one chamber (unicameral). Today, 49 states have bicameral legislatures, and one—Nebraska—is unicameral. This was not always the case, however. 

Most of the American colonies were governed by one-house legislatures, but this gradually shifted. By 1763, only two colonies (Delaware and Pennsylvania) continued to use unicameral legislatures. After independence, all but three states (Georgia, Pennsylvania and Vermont) adopted bicameral systems similar to that of the newly created U.S. Congress.  Georgia's one-house legislature was short-lived, being replaced with a bicameral system in 1789. Pennsylvania moved to a two-chamber legislature in 1790. Until Nebraska, Vermont was the last state to use a unicameral legislature; it switched structural formats in 1836. Nebraska had a traditional two-house legislature while it was a territory and for nearly 75 years after it became a state. In 1934, Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment that changed the legislature to a nonpartisan, one-house body; the first session of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature began in January 1937.

Partisan Composition

Democrat...Green...Independent...Republican....State legislators differ in their political party affiliations, so legislative elections impact the partisan composition of chambers in all states except Nebraska.  Legislators in Nebraska are required to run on a nonpartisan basis. 

While one political party typically controls a legislative chamber, equal splits in partisan composition occur more frequently than most people expect. A partisan stalemate does not mean the business of the state comes to a halt, however. Find out what legislative chambers have done when faced with legislative deadlock.

Legislative Sessions and Session Dates

There are two main types of legislative sessions--regular and special or extraordinary. One frequently debated question is what is the best format for a regular legislative session. Should a legislature meet annually or biennially? Should there be a limit on the scope of issues that may be debated? Should the length of the session be limited? Special sessions may be called by the governor or legislature to deal with specified matters.

Parliamentary Procedure

Each legislative chamber may determine its own rules of procedure. Many chambers also choose another parliamentary authority to cover issues not addressed in their own rules. Find out why almost three-fourths of the legislative bodies have selected Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure as their official parliamentary authority. Germaneness means the relevance or appropriateness of amendments or motions to the item under discussion; this may be one of the most difficult decisions that a presiding officer must face.

Legislative Information Technology

Technology is an integral part of the legislative process in all states today.  More information on how legislatures use technology to improve efficiency is available on the NCSL website Technology in State Legislatures.

Glossary of Terms

Every occupation has its special jargon, and legislatures are no exception. NCSL offers an explanation of many terms used in legislative circles. 

Additional Resources