Commentary

Arkansas power politics at its most raw and most sublime

Arkansas Senate chamber Aug. 16, 2022 (Dwain Hebda/Arkansas Advocate)

As an exercise of raw power, a rule change that limits Democrats to two seats on any of the Arkansas Senate’s standing committees likely won’t shake many rafters.

But the move did draw reaction from state Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle) on Twitter: 

Ray’s tweet didn’t sit well with some who responded to him. Someone called it a strategic power grab to enable the GOP-controlled Legislature to continue to shift funds away from public education.

No one mentioned it, but could the change be part of a long payback by Republicans on Democrats for their deliberate move in 2016 to stack the House Taxation and Revenue Committee to give Democrats a majority on the panel even though Republicans controlled the Legislature?

Strategic or not, payback or not, last Thursday’s discussion of the rule change provided an interesting civics lesson.

Let me set the scene: The Nov. 8 elections reduced the Democrats in the Senate from a minority party of seven to an even smaller minority of six. Republicans grew their supermajority from 27 to 29.

Before last Thursday’s organizational meeting, membership on the Senate’s eight-member standing committees was limited to three from the minority party, under a rule adopted in 2019. Previously, Democrats could hold four seats on the standing committees.

“This rule change represents the elective will of the people of Arkansas and mirrors the percentage in this body,” Sen. Blake Johnson of Corning said in support of his motion.

Four of the six Senate Democrats spoke against Johnson’s proposal, noting that it does nothing but emphasize the powerlessness of their party to stop or pass legislation.

“I have no clue why this rule is even necessary,” Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, said.

“There is absolutely nothing that six people can do to diminish your power. Not anything,” Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said. “You have won and you have won greatly. And now you would be so small as to say that if three of us had an interest in a committee, too bad, too sad.

“That’s fine if that’s what you want to do. But I don’t think it speaks well of this body that I have known all these years as a deliberative body that has been expansive in allowing the intercourse of conversation.

“What you are doing now is diminishing the ability to hear anything that does not agree with what your thought processes are. That is not what the Senate is about,” Chesterfield said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, another Little Rock Democrat, referenced Chesterfield’s comment on the math: “Why have this rule, with those numbers?”

He said he didn’t think the rule change would have any practical effect on the committees that Democrats select.

‘It limits us’

“Beyond the practicalities, there’s a bigger issue here,” he said, noting that each senator represents roughly 90,000 people. “Your constituents chose you. The same for the Democrats.

“The way this institution has always operated is that once you’re here, everyone’s voice is equal. What this rule says is that everyone’s voice is equal — unless you’re a Democrat in the committee selection process. … I think this rule lowers this institution, and I think it’s a poor way to start the 94th General Assembly.”

Partisan rulemaking “limits us as an institution, and I think it limits our potential as a state,” Tucker said. 

Political parties are supposed to be a means to an end, “that end being policy,” he said. “But in politics these days in America it seems that parties have become an end in themselves. Winning for winning’s sake. Where winning becomes more important than what you’ve won, and in a lot of cases what you’ve lost as well.”

Sen. Greg Leding of Fayetteville acknowledged that legislators will disagree along party lines, but said that much of the Senate’s work doesn’t fall along party lines.

“We’re all working together on issues to better serve Arkansans,” Leding said. “You never know where you’re going to get that vote you need.”

Flowers said she found no reasonable explanation for the rule change.

“What’s behind the change? What are you trying to do? What’s the impact going to be?

The impact from my perspective is a Senate where the majority is more likely to ignore differing views on important issues. Where the majority, like schoolyard bullies, won’t care who gets hurt as long their team is scoring points. Where the majority will be less willing to collaborate.

I hope I’m wrong.

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Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate
Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

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