Home  >  Nebraska  >  NE: Quirky king of the filibuster returning to the Capitol

NE: Quirky king of the filibuster returning to the Capitol

By   /   November 19, 2012  /   21 Comments

CHAMBERS: Ernie Chambers is the state’s longest serving lawmaker.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN — Ernie Chambers, the so-called king of the filibuster, is headed back to the Capitol.

People who know him, or know of him, are aware of his eccentricities, his idiosyncratic approach to governing. They know what to expect, which is to say they are prepared for outlandishness.

Chambers, the state’s longest-serving legislator, once sued God for the untold pain and suffering forced upon humanity — he was trying to make the point that anyone could be sued, by anybody.

He has repeatedly tried to repeal the death penalty in crimson red Republican Nebraska, he persuaded his colleagues to abolish corporal punishment in schools, he wears jeans and a sweatshirt on the floor of the Legislature, and he claims he has no heart.

He refers to himself as the “defender of the downtrodden.”

Chambers also likes to talk. A lot. Mostly when he doesn’t like a bill.

Chambers, says Stateline, is “among the most prolific filibusterers in any state’s history,” able to single-handledly kill bills and bend the Legislature to his will. So then, why didn’t the Legislature use his four-year absence to change rules or laws to make it harder for him to do so?

Nebraska is one of few states where bills are routinely filibustered in the statehouse — even a threatened filibuster can force compromise — but in the four years the king of filibusters was exiled from the Capitol because of term limits, state lawmakers did nothing to change rules or laws making it more difficult to talk a bill to death.

Some say it’s a Nebraska tradition to give every lawmaker that kind of power. Others say it’s because most lawmakers want to preserve the power to filibuster themselves, should they ever need it. Others say it’s to keep urban senators in check, as they increasingly outnumber their rural counterparts.

Whatever the reason, Nebraska’s filibustering ways haven’t changed, and now the master of filibusters is back.

The 75-year-old lawmaker known for his formidable oratory skills and ability to parlay parliamentary procedure to block or alter bills returns to the Legislature in January after a four-year hiatus. He left office in 2008 after voters passed a term-limit law that many viewed as a method of telling Chambers to move it along, to take a break, to retire.

But the law allows senators, who sit out for four years, to run again. So Chambers did.

Brenda Erickson, program principal for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said filibusters are rare in state Legislatures — except Nebraska’s. Filibusters can be cut off with a simple majority of lawmaker votes in most states, she said.

“You pretty much never or hardly ever see them,” she said. “Most have limited session lengths, so you cannot afford to have truly unlimited debate.”

Chambers often filibusters through procedural motions or multiple amendments, because there’s no limit on the number of amendments a senator can file.

Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said Chambers rarely introduces legislation — he mostly plays defense.

“He picks out bills that he doesn’t like for special attention,” Avery said. “And if it’s your bill you better know your bill and defend it. He’s gonna put you through the ringer.”

Avery said Chambers can do a one-man filibuster by “clever use” of the rules — moving to reconsider or bracket, for example.

“There are all kinds of rules that you can use to delay,” he said. “People have to yield you time, and you have to be able to do it without a bathroom break. … He held us one night until 10:30, 11, and he made it very clear he was going to go the distance.”

Motions for cloture can be approved by a two-thirds majority (33 votes), so long as the speaker decides the bill has gotten a “full and fair debate.”

Getting cloture will be more difficult for Republicans now that they no longer hold 33 seats in the Legislature. The party lost three seats in the November election, dropping to 30. The number of Democrats increased by two to 17, and the number of Independents increased from one to two (including Chambers).

Over the years, the Nebraska Legislature has attempted to rein in Chambers, passing a rule in 1992 allowing cloture to end debate with a two-thirds majority vote and then adopting a rule in 2002 making it easier to end filibusters.

In the past, eight hours of debate were required before debate could be stopped. Now, it’s up to the speaker to decide when a “full and fair” debate has been achieved. Speaker Mike Flood — who was term-limited out of office this year — generally allowed eight hours of debate for bills on general file, four hours on select file and two hours during final approval.

But rule changes didn’t stop Chambers from killing or amending legislation on the death penalty, fetal tissue research, abortion and same-sex marriage. He famously blocked a constitutional amendment in 2005 protecting the right to hunt and fish by introducing amendment after amendment protecting the right to do things such as create, recreate, converse, procreate, sit on the porch and drink lemonade, laugh, cough, itch, scratch, shear and “hunt for the link between Noah’s Ark, Joan of Arc and Archimedes.”

In his absence, lawmakers passed the hunting and fishing constitutional amendment earlier this year, and voters ratified it.

Despite grumbling about Chambers’ control over the Nebraska Legislature, the body still allows unlimited amendments and therefore allows individual lawmakers to wield a lot of influence — if they have the brains and bladder to do so.

Repeated attempts to lower the number of votes required for cloture have failed, some say in part to preserve the power of each lawmaker and to keep the power of the big bloc of Lincoln and Omaha senators in check.

“You’ve gotta have those rules, otherwise everything’s going to be an up-down vote,” Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen said.

Erickson said it’s up to lawmakers and the speaker to enforce the rules and limit filibusters, but Nebraska has a tradition of maximizing “free and open debate” – which is probably more important in a one-house Legislature.

“There’s no cross-checking bills,” she said. “You are the checks and balances.”

Avery said he doesn’t think the Legislature wants to end the filibuster.

“There is a certain respect for tradition and preserving those rules that everybody knows at some point they may want to use themselves,” he said.

Chambers declined to comment on the issue, other than to say, “I’m not my reputation. I’m worse.”

Contact Deena Winter at [email protected].

— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]

Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.


Deena formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Rich

    Glad to see Mr Chambers back.

  • ricky

    How do you like that? The Repubs passed legislation to curb Ernie’s powers and what did they get? Not only is Senator Chambers returning with vigor but people like Speaker Flood, former Speaker Kermit Brashear, the Omaha – hating Senator from Bellevue Abbie Cornett, Tony (no relation) Fulton, and a host of other losers are gone.
    Stick that in your craw Conservative Nebraska.
    Ricky From Omaha

  • This is the first time I’ve heard racism and anti-American hatred described as “eccentricities, his idiosyncratic approach to governing.” Thank goodness Chambers isn’t white or the cries would be “Jim Crow’s back, Jim Crow’s back!” Racism is ugly no matter whose mouth it flows from.

  • Goblin Shark

    Ernie makes this state liveable, protects us from the social conservatives & tea partiers.

  • Pat Boyle

    If Chambers were white, you’d be applauding him. Glad he’s back.

  • Ernie Chambers spoke last year my college (Concordia, NE) and the summation of what he said is, “Christians are all idiots, white people are alln racist, and I can’t be racist because I’m African-American.”

    I have zero respect for that man.

  • Have you ever heard Ernie Speak in person? He spoke last year at my college and here is the summary of what he said: “Christians are all idiots. White people are all racists. I can’t be racist because I’m African-American.”

  • Watching_From_Lincoln

    Considering the venue and the audience, he was most likely right.

  • Watching_From_Lincoln

    Get over it, Susan. You had your *ss handed to you in the election, even being blown out by the second place finisher, Brenda Council. THIS Republican is glad that Ernie Chambers is back in the Unicameral, for once again we have a voice of reason and sanity to counter the weight of ignorance, racism, religious hogwash and political corruption that the R Party has brought to the “non-partisan” Unicameral over the past sixteen years. BTW, glad you got rid of that useless, self-serving web address from your joke of a campaign from your user name.

  • As much as Senator Chambers has tried to help Nebraskans learn, see, and overcome their own racist and “me only” tendancies, too many Nebraskans are uneducatable. More than a senator, he is an educator.
    I am looking forward to one of the greatest state senators Ne. has ever had, teaching our Legislative members and state leaders some humility.

  • Another example of people not being able to look past the words and think about the message he is sharing. Peoples have always denied they are prejudging people or things. It is inbread in us all.
    The christian thing I would have to expand to all religions where leadership makes tons and tons of money, and control of their “flock”.

  • Jazzee

    wow why does it always revert back to someone’s race??? just sayin’

  • Goblin Shark

    I have been known to offer the same (and much worse) opinions of Christians. As for the racism views, I grew up in South Omaha, was in the Navy for a long time, and have lived in North Omaha for a long time, now, so I’ve gotten to know many Black folks of different backgrounds over the years. I don’t agree with that view, but it’s not an uncommon one. They’re just speaking from what their experience of the world has been.

  • ha ha great job on this post. S Smith got about 1 per cent of the vote what does that tell you?

  • disqus_q7zMHplz2Z

    It’s “wringer,” Deena, not “ringer.”

  • I say B.S.. It’s their reality because they want to be their reality. They LOVE playing the “innocent victim” and have been playing the same old song for way too long.

  • Personally, I don’t like Ernie because he’s a racist … claims that the whites are against the blacks …. tries to play the “I’m black and therefore innocent” card all the time … sick of it.

  • Is someone is bitter because Chambers won in a landslide, Susan?

  • Chambers sure is right. When the majority thinks expanding rights to include others takes away their rights, its a high sign of entitlement from the majority, and white christians in Nebraska already enjoy a high rate of power.

  • Yes a host of loser conservatives are gone, a host of loser conservatives still remain.

  • Get over it.