Despite Republicans now having 74 of the 100 seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives, Democrats have a majority of the membership of the House Revenue and Tax Committee. Democrats will be able to block any Republican tax reform measures in 2017.
How did this happen?
How could 74 Republicans fail to get the majority on each House committee? Simple, the House failed again to change an antiquated rule that divides the selection process into congressional caucus districts. The rule gives each congressional district five seats on each committee. The rule was adopted decades ago when almost every House member was Democrat, and the only concern then was the balance of committee membership from urban and rural areas. Primarily the rule was designed to keep urban Pulaski County from controlling a committee. Once the Republicans made gains in the House of Representatives political ideology, not urban-rural issues, became the most important consideration in House politics.
It has long been known that the old congressional caucus district selection method makes it possible for the minority party to stack a committee. How? First, dividing the selection process into four caucus areas makes it impossible for the majority party to coordinate to counter the minority party’s effort to stack a committee. Second, Democrat seniority in the 1st Congressional District gives the Democrats a big boost in a Democrat effort to stack some committees.
Was this just an odd unintended consequence or is someone to blame?
There is NO DOUBT Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam is fully to blame.
Speaker Gillam has been fully aware of this problem for years. Gillam had the ability to have a new rule approved, but he sat on his hands and did nothing in 2014, 2015, or 2016. Did he not want to offend his Democrat supporters who helped him become Speaker-Designate and then Speaker?
Is it fair to blame Gillam? Absolutely. He has a record of protecting Democrats. In 2014 he publicly stated he wasn’t going to help Republicans who were running against House Democrat incumbents. In 2015 Gillam appointed several Democrats as the Chairs of House committees.
As the Speaker, Gillam appoints EVERY member of the House Rules Committee which is responsible for proposing rules changes. (He even appointed a Democrat to Chair the House Rules Committee.) If Gillam wanted to change the committee selection rule, he could have gotten anything he wanted from the committee he appointed. Yet, Gillam sat on his hands to the benefit of Democrats.
Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin had strong words about the House of Representatives allowing the Democrats to take control of the Revenue and Tax Committee, which allows the Democrats to block Republican tax reform. Tim Griffin tweeted it is “An affront to voters and outrageous. Unacceptable.” The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported more of the Lieutenant Governor’s comments,
“This policy is directly attributable to stopping policies in the last  session such as education reform, tort liability reform, voter ID as well,” Griffin said, referring to the House Education Committee and the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee that were half Democrats and half Republicans.[i]
Speaker Gillam’s comments were far different. He was unconcerned and seem to have a lack of understanding that there is a difference in the agenda of Republicans and Democrats.
“I think it’s way too early to just automatically make those kind of assertions as to what the committee will do or won’t do,” said House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia. “To this point, they have seen no legislation. I think we have to be fair and give the members a chance to actually see the bills and go from there.”[ii]
Timeline leading to Gillam’s repeated failures
- As the Republicans were poised to become the majority party in 2012, there was discussion among the new Republican majority of changing the committee selection system. One proposal discussed was to divide committee membership in proportion to each party’s percentage of membership in the house. The proposal discussed would have done away with a minority party scheme to stack committees but would have guaranteed the minority party fair representation on EVERY committee.
- The 2012 discussion fell flat in November when Representative Davy Carter (R) was elected speaker by the Democrat caucus and only six Republican votes. Carter was beholden to the Democrats and no change was proposed.
- After being elected Speaker-Designate in 2014, Jeremy Gillam, was asked by Talk Business & Politics if he would be assisting Republicans challenging incumbent House Democrats. He chose to protect the Democrats saying: “I will not be out campaigning against my [Democrat] colleagues.”[iii]
- In September 2014, David Ferguson, former Director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, wrote an article for Conduit For Action warning House members that retaining the caucus district system would bring more mischief by the Democrats. (See the full article: House District Caucuses for selection of committees) His article also reported the persistent rumor Gillam would pass over Republican House members to appoint some Democrats as committee chairs.
- November 2014, the House held its organizational meetings and new Speaker Elect Jeremy Gillam (Carter’s handpicked successor) ignored the committee selection problem. Although the Democrat membership in the House dropped to only 36 members, the Democrats used the antiquated selection system to stack two committees. The House Education Committee and the House Insurance and Commerce Committee ended up with equal numbers of Democrat and Republican members, which meant the Democrats could block legislation on both committees.
- Just as CFA had warned, in 2015, Gillam passed over Republicans to appoint several Democrats as committee chairs, including the House Rules Committee which is responsible for proposing rule changes. (Did you know that the Rules of the Arkansas Senate prohibits a minority party Senator from being the Chair of a Standing Committee?)
- November 10, 2016, Speaker Jeremy Gillam was given his second term as Speaker of the House. Despite the House membership now being 74 Republicans and only 26 Democrats, the Democrats were able once again to stack a committee. This time the Democrats used the antiquated selection system to take a majority of the seats on the House Revenue and Tax Committee where they can block Republican tax reform.
Republican Representative Jeremy Gillam has a record of protecting his Democrat colleagues in the House. Even if he didn’t intentionally keep the old rule to help his Democrat colleagues, he knew the problem and his ignoring it isn’t any better for his legacy.
[i] House’s tax panel leans Democratic, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 11/11/2016