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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, the current majority of legislators are lawyers.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of full-time
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.