What’s a legislative session like? Controlled chaos

Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, testifies before a House committee about his bill allowing guns on college campuses. Often, committee meetings are standing room only.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Now that the regular session lacks only a planned one-day return May 1 before adjournment, 12 legislators have written letters to their chambers asking the record to reflect they didn’t mean to vote a certain way on a particular bill, as reported in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

That’s not a big deal. Over three months, the state’s 135 legislators filed 2,069 bills, 1,074 of which have become law. They recorded, between them, hundreds of thousands of votes, so a few fumbles are to be expected. None of the 12 mistakes affected the outcome of legislation.

The news does present an opportunity to describe what a legislative session looks like, which is, in two words, controlled chaos.

Legislators meet in a biennial (every two years) regular session for about three months starting in January of each odd-numbered year and then meet for about a month in a budget-focused fiscal session in even-numbered years. In between, they meet in special sessions called by the governor as needed.

Days at the Capitol start in the morning with committee meetings, where some bills are discussed at length while others pass or fail quickly.

When the full chambers meet in the afternoon, both the House and Senate have rules of order and decorum, but if it were a kindergarten class, everyone would be placed in time out, especially in the Senate. It’s civil, but legislators mill about engaging in private discussions with each other, or they shuffle in and out of the chamber to meet with lobbyists and hometown folks. Some bills have everyone’s attention, while others involve noncontroversial corrections to the law that legislators trust were hashed out in committee and vote yes, or have a fellow legislator vote yes for them while they are out of their seats. The chairperson – Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, in the House and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin in the Senate, or legislators taking their places – occasionally has to bang the gavel and fuss at the kids when they become too disruptive.

Legislators are doing an enormous amount of lawmaking in a very short period of time, which is how, 12 times, they accidentally voted the wrong way. Meanwhile, they are voting on bills they may not have had much time to study while hearing from competing constituents – and, occasionally, taking a break to talk to reporters. At the same time, they are trying to maintain relationships with each other. It can be a delicate balancing act voting against a fellow legislator’s pet project and then asking him or her to vote for your pet project five minutes later. As a result, many bills successfully navigate the chamber, House or Senate, where they originate but then die on the other side. There are less hurt feelings that way.

The process could be better and more deliberative so that lawmakers are not racing through 2,000 bills and passing 1,000 at such breakneck speed. Perhaps legislators could spend more time in session and earn the pay raises they recently received, but on the other hand, the more time human beings are given to make laws, the more opportunities they have to make bad ones. State Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, proposed a constitutional amendment that would have limited legislative sessions to 60 days but have them occur every year rather than the current setup of a 90-day session one year and a 30-day fiscal session the next – the idea being that legislators might let bills simmer rather than rush them to a boil knowing they would have more than one legislative session between elections. It didn’t advance. Another possibility would be fewer, longer bills that incorporate more technical changes all at once, the downside being the longer the bill, the more things to find wrong with it. I’ve wondered if the 135 legislators should each be limited to 10 bills to create more time to carefully consider each one. Surely Arkansas law doesn’t need more than 1,350 possible changes in a given session.

Democracy is messy, and it’s supposed to be, but Arkansas government works OK. The budget is balanced, though the state has some debt and is relying on the federal government too much. The worst bills usually die, while those creating big change usually get softened along the way. For the most part, things happen cautiously and incrementally.

Anyway, this is the 91st biennial regular session, which means we’re still around after 90 of them.

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