Since its first meeting more than 200 years ago, the New Jersey Legislature has been an institution characterized by periodic change. Three separate constitutions have defined its authority, structure and method of representing the citizens of the State. National movements for political reform have challenged and shaped some of its functions and procedures. For several decades after the War for Independence, the Legislature was the dominant partner in State government. But after World War II, the governorship emerged as the more powerful branch. In recent years, the Legislature has again changed, acquiring greater authority and independence than it had previously and developing in a manner consistent with its history.
Early National Period
The first session of the Legislature convened on August 27, 1776, amid crisis and revolution. British troops were about to invade the State, and the internal conflict between colonists loyal to Britain and colonists who sought independence was equally grave. A year earlier, representatives from New Jersey's then 13 counties had formed a Provincial Congress to supersede the royal Governor. In June 1776, the Provincial Congress had authorized the preparation of a constitution, and within a few weeks it was written, adopted by the Provincial Congress and accepted by the Continental Congress. It established an annually elected two-House Legislature composed of a General Assembly with three representatives from each county and a Legislative Council with one member per county. All State officials, including the Governor, were appointed by the two Houses in a joint meeting.
After independence was won, legislative politics were defined by the intense rivalry between the Federalist (later Whig) Party, which was powerful in South Jersey and Essex, Hudson and Middlesex counties; and the Democratic Party, which was strongest in the northwest counties, the shore region and Bergen County. Electoral contests between the two parties were customarily close so that a few thousand votes for one group or the other determined the political complexion of the entire State government.
Constitution of 1844
A new constitution in 1844 brought some important changes to the government's structure. The Governor was to be elected directly by the people for a single three-year term and was given the power to veto bills passed by the Legislature. The General Assembly was expanded to 60 members who were to be elected annually and apportioned to the counties on the basis of population. The Senate, formerly the Legislative Council, was to be composed of one member elected for a three-year term from each of the 19 counties.
Regardless of these changes, party allegiance hardened during the Civil War and continued firm for several decades afterwards. Democrats usually won a majority in both Houses so that Republicans, formerly the Whigs, enjoyed only intermittent control between 1860 and 1890. Then in 1893, the Republicans ended the Democratic domination and improved their own legislative position by obtaining a court ruling which held that members of the General Assembly must be elected from an entire county rather than from election districts of unequal population. Still, real political power continued to be held not by any of the branches of government or the State committee of either political party, but rather by a few influential party leaders and the chairs of the county political organizations. Governors had only modest authority because they were unable to succeed themselves and had little patronage to dispense. The Legislature met infrequently, was plagued by weak leadership and had high turnover among its members.
Age of Reform
Significant reform began in the 1910s as a national movement toward political change began to affect New Jersey. Under Governor Woodrow Wilson (1911-1913), several major electoral and administrative reforms were enacted, including the use of the secret ballot, which helped purify the electoral process. Although the State House continued to be dominated by powerful county committee chairs during the next several decades, the trend toward reform continued. Shifts in population, the popularity of ticket-splitting and the weakening of party allegiances combined to erode the power of the county chairs.
The process was accelerated in 1947 by the adoption of a new constitution. It gave the Governor additional veto powers, permission to serve two terms and consolidated hundreds of independent agencies into 20 principal executive departments which the Governor controlled. The terms of senators were extended to four years and those of General Assembly representatives to two. Another spur came in 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle of "one man, one vote" for legislative apportionment. In an effort to create election districts of equal population, a State Constitutional Convention in 1966 expanded the Senate from 21 to 40 members and the General Assembly from 60 to 80 but retained county boundaries as the basis of the districts. In 1972, the State Supreme Court rejected these districts and ordered that senators must be elected from single-member districts and that county lines must be crossed to achieve equality among districts. The power of the county chairs was thus further diminished, and the State was reapportioned into the present configuration of 40 districts with one senator and two members of the General Assembly elected from each.
Initially these changes further increased gubernatorial power. Aided by the authority granted by the new constitution, the Governor was able to move into the vacuum left by the county chairs and become the State's most important political figure. Activist governors set policy, and formulated and pushed for a specific legislative agenda while the Legislature, for the most part, reacted to the governors' programs rather than formulating its own policy.
Within the last few decades the balance between these two branches of government has again shifted. Although the Governor remains the focus of State policy, the Legislature has become more independent and has gained increased stature as a co-equal branch of government. This resulted from two institutional changes in legislative operations. First, beginning in the mid-1970's, the performance and influence of legislative committees have improved dramatically - to the extent that they now hold regularly scheduled public meetings, solicit expert testimony, and amend many of the bills considered. Many committees have developed expertise in a particular area that translates into leadership for the entire Legislature. The development of the committee system was assisted by the nonpartisan staff of the Office of Legislative Services which, by law, helps the Legislature and its committees to research issues, draft laws and analyze the Governors' proposals. The second strengthening of legislative authority resulted from changes in the tenure of leadership. The tradition of annually rotating the offices of President of the Senate and the Speaker of the General Assembly among veteran members of the majority party has given way to longer terms, thus providing those positions with greater influence and authority. This change has been accompanied by an expanded role for partisan staff in both Houses. Each of the four partisan staffs helps in devising policy perspectives, coordinating leadership activities with those of committee and individual legislators and handling media and public relations.
The expansion in legislative capacity has been concurrent with demographic changes in the Legislature. There has been an infusion in recent years of members of diverse occupations, and of women and minorities.
The Senate and General Assembly are composed of people from all walks of life. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of full-time legislators.
Since it first convened over 200 years ago, the Legislature has become more heterogeneous, more professional and more powerful. Recent changes in its structure together with larger, long-term political changes in the State have fostered the Legislature's evolution toward equal status as an independent branch of State government and its ability to effectively serve the diverse needs of the people of New Jersey.