TO FRESHMEN MEMBERS OF THE ARKANSAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:
The question here is not whether the House District Caucus selection method puts freshmen at a disadvantage in getting their preferred committees, since freshmen would likely get to pick late under any method. Rather the issues are:
- Should freshmen have a say in determining the best method for selecting committee memberships?
- Does the use of District Caucuses help or hurt a freshman’s overall interests, such as political party representation?
House District Caucuses are used in selecting the membership of the 10 Standing Committees of the House and are used in the selection of most of the House members on the Arkansas Legislative Council, Legislative Joint Auditing Committee and Joint Budget Committee. The timeline set by the previous House for your organizational meeting makes it nearly impossible for the opinions of freshmen to be heard. The General Election is on a Tuesday and (three days later) on Friday committee memberships are chosen by District caucus.
What are the 10 standing committees?
Class “A” Standing Committees
(1) Education; (2) Judiciary; (3) Public Health, Welfare and Labor; (4) Public Transportation; (5) Revenue and Taxation
Class “B” Standing Committees
(6) Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs; (7) Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development; (8) City, County and Local Affairs; (9) Insurance and Commerce; and (10) State Agencies and Governmental Affairs
Why are there Class “A” and Class “B” committees? Class “A” committees meet on the same day and the Class “B” committees meet on the next day. Each House member has two standing committee assignments – one Class “A” and one Class “B”.
Rule 54 of the House Rules of the 89th General Assembly says in part:
54.(a)(1) Members of the standing committees shall be selected by House District Caucuses of members-elect on the Friday following the November General Election with each caucus selecting five (5) members for each “A” standing committee and five (5) members for each “B” standing committee. The members-elect of the Second District Caucus shall select up to three (3) members for each standing committee from within the Pulaski County membership and the remaining members for each standing committee from without the Pulaski County membership; this provision may be waived by majority vote of the members-elect from without Pulaski County. Standing committee membership shall be confirmed at the same time that representatives are administered the oath of office.
Please note that this rule of the House of Representatives of the 89th General Assembly attempts to bind the House of the 90th General Assembly into making decisions on the “Friday following the November General Election.” However, one House cannot bind another House, unless you choose to be bound either by your agreement or your inaction.
The use of House District Caucuses in the selection of members for the Arkansas Legislative Council, the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee and the Joint Budget Committee are covered by House Rules 54, 80 and 81.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PICK COMMITTEES BY HOUSE DISTRICT CAUCUS?
A House District Caucus is roughly equivalent to the four Arkansas Congressional Districts. Some adjustments have to be made so that each House District Caucus has 25 members. Standing Committees have 20 members, and each House District Caucus selects 5 members to each committee. The rules do not say what method is to be used within the House District Caucus. Normally it is by seniority but until recently the 1st District Caucus allowed the caucus chair to make assignments.
House District Caucuses were important years ago when Arkansas was a one party state. With almost everyone being Democrat many of the political fights in the legislature were regional or urban/rural conflicts. The concern by rural legislators that Pulaski County might gain too much political power can still be seen in the special restriction in the 2nd House District Caucus. The special rule limits the number of Pulaski County legislators that may serve on any one committee unless the rule is waived.
Circumstances have changed. Over the last decades the concern about regional or urban/rural representation has been overshadowed by concern over political party representation. The news items in 2012 were not about the old regional divisions. It was which political party had the majority on which committee.[i] Political party representation is likely the primary interest of both the Democrat and Republican House caucuses.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT HOUSE DISTRICT CAUCUS SELECTIONS
Complaints seem to arise every two years about the House District Caucus selection system.
- The most bitter complaints have come from within the 1st District Caucus. Most District Caucuses use seniority within the district to determine who picks a committee first, however, in the 1st District Caucus through 2010 caucus members arrived at the meeting only to find that they have been assigned committees by the District Caucus Chair or the Speaker. The appointments were a point of contention even among House freshmen. (The Democrats in the 1st District caucus only changed their ways after it was apparent that the Republican Party would be the majority party in the House.)
- Another complaint has been the inability to swap committee assignments with someone from another district caucus. For example, if a retired teacher in one district caucus ends up with an assignment to the Public Health, Welfare & Labor Committee and a doctor in another district caucus ends up with the Education Committee they could not swap committees because it would upset the district balances.
- Even members with some seniority have complained about not being able to get their preferred assignment in their District caucus but would have been able to get the committees if they had been in another District caucus. The ability to get a preferred committee may depend on which District Caucus you are assigned.
ALTERNATIVES TO DISTRICT CAUCUSES
Should the House District Caucus selection be replace? That is the sole business of the House and it depends on whether the House thinks the regional based system is more important than other factors.
I am not aware of every alternative that may have been discussed, but here are some that have been discussed with me.
- Selection by pure seniority
- Selection by political district caucus (with or without using seniority)
- Selection by political caucus and ensure that the majority and minority party are proportionally represented on each committee.
The House organizational meeting happens very quick and at a time when freshman are still recovering from a long campaign and are still working to collect signs, etc. They are herded into the House Chambers three days after Election Day where they draw for seniority, pick seats and are assigned a parking space. Then without an opportunity to consider the ramifications of a number of organizational rules of the previous House, committee selections are made. This means rules from the previous House get set in stone for the new legislature. Freshmen may or may not like committee selection by District Caucus but they won’t get a voice in the matter, unless the freshmen insist on being heard.
This is the third article of a series focused on important organizational decisions from which freshmen legislators are excluded. The first two articles were:
The next article will focus on bill filing deadlines and will include information on shell bills.
[i] Both parties hold committee sway, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Front Section, Pages 1 on 12/02/2012