Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr uses his bi-weekly column this week to take on Gov. Mike Beebe’s comments last week saying that the state legislature has become too partisan. I think it is worth a read…
Governor Beebe was quoted recently in the state newspaper saying that partisanship in the Arkansas House of Representatives is “scary”. No disrespect to the governor, but from what I’ve seen, I would have to characterize the situation in the Legislature a bit differently.
For over 100 years in Arkansas, the Democratic Party in Arkansas has operated in an environment in which they were virtually unchallenged in the state’s legislative chambers and for the most part, the executive branch. At present, the Republican Party is still the minority party.
There are, of course, some legacies of prolonged partisan dominance that have continued. For example, on the powerful House Rules committee, Democrats maintain a 2-to-1 majority. Is that a fair balance? Some in the legislature yearn to cling to the idyllic times when the Speaker of the House, always a Democrat, assigns all committee chairmanships to Democrats. Fortunately, this practice has changed over the past few General Assemblies, as some Republicans have received appointments.
Currently in the Arkansas Senate, Democrat senators get to choose their committee preferences first before a single Republican gets to choose the committees on which they wish to serve, regardless of seniority. We’ve seen over the years that when a majority is too comfortable in government, things like transparency and accountability weaken.
Now, the Governor was elected as a Democrat. I was elected as a Republican. We both represent the same constituents. Arkansans expect both of us, along with our other elected colleagues to do what’s best for Arkansas, regardless of what party we belong to. However, this does not mean that we will not both speak out on issues from divergent perspectives.
Naturally, partisanship is going to exist in the Capitol. Political parties wouldn’t exist otherwise. But, it’s not all bad. The truth is that divided government can be good for democracy. It fosters debate on issues rather than allowing the whims of the majority to be imposed by default. We’ve seen this scenario at the federal level in Washington many times.
The go-along-to-get-along approach can be nice and collegial, sure, but is it what’s best for constituents? The Legislature debates serious issues that affect people’s daily lives. The focus should be on doing what’s right, not just appeasing a colleague. With as many bills as are filed during a legislative session, there are myriad opportunities for and examples of bipartisan cooperation.
We need legislators to engage one another in the arena of ideas. State capitols are often called the laboratories of democracy. New models of government efficiency and policy are developed across the country by state governments. Some are successful and some are not. But, what’s important is that competing ideas are discussed. The norms of government are challenged. When policies that have been in place for decades are proven not to work, there needs to be a push for change and if that happens to come from an opposition party, then so be it.
Also, executives should never assume that members of their own party will always support their proposals. Earlier this year, President Obama submitted a budget proposal to Capitol Hill. Not one member of the United States Senate, from either party, supported it. We have separation of powers for a reason and it’s a good thing.
I hope that you don’t take away from this article that I want our state lawmakers to withdraw to their respective partisan camps and fight constantly and contentiously like the politicians in Washington. The point I want to communicate is that competitive ideas and disagreements are natural components of our republic. Change is inevitable. At the end of the day, the citizens still hold the power, with their voice and their vote. And, if those they elect do what’s right, there should be nothing scary about that.