Freshmen Legislators Left Out of Leadership Decisions


Imagine an election in which 1/3 of the ballot boxes are thrown in the river and are replaced by ballot boxes stuffed with ballots of people who don’t live in the district. Crazy, right?  Actually, I think you will see that the system for choosing legislative leaders has about the same effect on the freshman class of the 90th General Assembly. No, ballot boxes weren’t thrown in the river and no one committed a fraud.  But, the system allows members of the 89th General Assembly who won’t be back, to help choose your leaders, and you didn’t get to vote.  I’m sure you are grateful. Right?

The previous legislature chose:

  1. A Speaker Designate who they expect to be confirmed as Speaker of the House.
  2. A President Pro Tempore Designate who they expect to be confirmed as the President Pro Tempore.
  3. Majority and Minority political party leaders to lead your political party caucus.

This is another legislative issue that is controversial to talk about.  All the legislators who were elected by the 89th General Assembly for leadership positions in the 90th General Assembly appear to be nice people. Raising this subject is not in their personal interest. On the other hand, the goals of these articles are to inform freshmen about the legislative process and to point out areas where they have been left out, especially where it can be to their detriment.

Rule 10 of the House rules (of the 89th General Assembly) says a “Speaker-designate” will be elected immediately following the Fiscal Session.  That election was back on March 19, 2014, which is over 7 months before the November election.  More astounding is that about 1/3 of those voting to elect the Speaker-Designate won’t even be members of the legislature in 2015.

The House rule says: “It is the intent of this subsection that the Speaker-designate be the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the next-following General Assembly, subject to selection by the membership of theHouse upon convening of the regular session.

The system gives the Speaker-Designate the major advantage of being the presumed leader for several months.  This is especially so since the Speaker has been given major Washington D.C. style powers to obtain and enforce loyalty. (See. Powers of the Arkansas Speaker of the House)

The Senate rules do not specifically address the election of a Senate Pro Tempore-Designate but it is their practice to select one for you.  Not to be out done by the House, the Senate chose a President Pro Tempore-Designate on April 22, 2013.  That is 20 months before the 2015 session!  That vote was held so long ago that it was before:

  • An Extraordinary Session in 2013;
  • The election of Senator John Cooper in January 2014 to replace a Senator who had to resign;
  • The Fiscal Session in 2014;
  • An Extraordinary Session in 2014, and
  • Most importantly, before the new freshmen could vote on the race

The turnover in the Senate varies from term to term, and this time the turnover is relatively small. Combine that with the huge advantage of being the Designate for 20 months and freshmen will have a hard time having a voice in the matter.

The earliest mention I found of a Designate is in Act 975 of 1981.  The act provided for the selection of a Speaker-Designate.  It said the Speaker-Designate was the person who gained the most pledges for election as Speaker for the next General Assembly.  I recall House members criticizing the system during the 1980’s, because they did not want to have their colleagues vying for their pledge of support over a long period of time.  Act 48 of 1989 addressed their criticism, effective with 1991.  In 1991 the House sent out ballots about June 1 and the election results were to be declared by July.

The Speaker-Designate language is no longer in Arkansas law and is now found only in the House Rules.  There have been other changes to the system, but once Fiscal Sessions were approved by the people, the House moved its election to after the end of the Fiscal Session, which is held in even numbered years.

Based on this history it is clear that the Speaker-Designate system passed in 1989 was created for a different environment, a time when there was almost no turnover in House seats.  Having stability in the membership allowed the system to be a mere convenience. That environment no longer existed after voter initiated Term Limits were adopted.  About a third of the votes cast in the Speaker-Designate race are by House members who will not be back in the legislature the next term and about 1/3rd of the membership of the new legislature is left out of the decision.

The Senate eventually followed the example of the House and began electing a President pro Tempore-Designee.

Why has the Designate system stayed in place despite more turnover in legislative seats?  First, there isn’t an incentive for senior members to change the system. Second, the situation may be described by one of the laws of physics – A body in motion tends to stay in motion…”  And, the Designate system has stayed in motion because it always seems too late for freshmen to act upon it.

The following analogy was offered to me as an additional reason why the Designee system has stayed in place – “It is like wanting to make sure your sons’ football coach is replaced….however, if you try while your son is playing and you fail, he will never get to play again…(freshmen) and if you do it after he graduates….well, actually, you just never get around to that….

Both the Speaker-Designate and the President Pro Tempore-Designate were replaced after the November 2012 election.  Yes, it is possible for freshmen to be involved in the process, but the circumstances in 2012 were unique.  The Republican Party became the majority party in both the House and Senate and the Designates who were replaced were both Democrats.

The actual vote for Speaker and President Pro Tempore occurs at the beginning of the Regular Session, but it has merely been a matter of accepting the Designate by acclamation after he has had many months to consolidate his power.

One of the arguments for the Designate system is the claim that stability is needed in leadership and time is needed to train the new Speaker and new President Pro Tempore.  That argument died in 2012 when the Designates were replaced after the general election.  I don’t think anyone would argue that the lack of training time and the lack of stability in 2012 in any way harmed the effectiveness of President Pro Tempore Michel Lamoureux or Speaker Davy Carter.

Changes to the Speaker-Designate system approved in 1989 solved a minor political irritation.  Almost all House members would be back the next term and they wanted to get the selection of the Speaker over quickly.  Once voter initiated Term-Limits caused turnover, the early selection of a Designate resulted in the Designate gaining substantial power to influence elections that follow his selection. The Designate will be called upon to choose between:

  • Party loyalty; or
  • Loyalty to those who either supported election of the Designate or even those who support the personal agenda of the Designate.

The saying goes, “Politics makes strange bedfellows” so it is no surprise that politicians may choose personal agenda over the principles of his or her party.  However, the reason the issue is important here is for two reasons:  1) because the substantial political influence of the Designate was created by the Designate system, and 2) because the selection of Designates occurs before the primary and general elections.

If a Designate decided to support a person of the opposite party, you would probably expect it to be hush hush.  Perhaps something like calling people in his party to belittle a party candidate with something like, “Last time she didn’t even carry her home county.

But, Designates have even been overt in their support of a candidate of the opposite party. The headline in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 6, 2008 was: “Democrats spar over party loyalty”. The Chair of the Arkansas Democrat Party was irate that the Speaker-Designate and the President Pro Tempore-Designate, both Democrats, lent their name to a fundraiser invitation for a Republican candidate.  You can characterize this in two ways, either “good bipartisanship” or “feathering their own nest.

Even this year, Speaker-Designate Jeremy Gilliam (R) told Talk Business &Politics that he wouldn’t help Republican candidates who are trying to unseat Democrat incumbents in the House.

“Despite a closely divided House and the possibility that Democrats could re-take control of the majority, Gillam said he won’t campaign against incumbents on the other side of the political aisle.

“I’m not going to be out campaigning against my colleagues,” he said. “We’ve got several open seats and some primaries that are just Republican primaries, so I think there are plenty of things to keep me busy in planning the House and getting ready and moving forward in the next session that I won’t have to be out campaigning against my fellow colleagues.[i]

The Republican State Convention met earlier this year and passed a resolution urging Republican legislators to elect a Speaker and President Pro Tempore in a different way. Recognizing that the Republican Party is now the majority party in the House and Senate, the Convention urged Republican legislators to select the officers in the House and Senate through Republican caucus meetings and to unanimously support the caucus nominees.  In 2012, the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives was held the day before the House organizational meeting.

Recently some candidates told me about an email that made them furious.  They showed me an email from their party’s caucus leader (who is the presumed leader for the 90th General Assembly).  The email essentially told candidates they should quit discussing a particular issue. The candidates who I spoke with have been clear about their position on the issue throughout the campaign.  One said he had been able to explain the issue to many people from the other party and he was offended by the email.  The pressure to comprise principles comes early, and sometimes it comes from a caucus leader who others chose for you.

The Designate system began at a time when there was almost no turnover in the membership of the House and Senate.  The lack of turnover meant that there were no negative consequences to the system.  Voter initiated Term Limits brought turnover to legislative seats, but the Designate system did not change.  This means many freshmen don’t have a vote, and meanwhile the ballot box is stuffed with the votes of legislators who will not be members of the 90th General Assembly.

Do you think the voters who elected the freshmen expected their elected representatives to be excluded from important decisions on how the General Assembly is run?

It would be hard to overcome this flawed system, unless veteran legislators decided to do something about it.

This is the 2nd of a series of articles addressed to freshmen legislators.  The next two articles in this series will continue the theme of examples where freshmen get left out of the system.