During an 81-day session, Arkansas state legislators considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 of them into law. That’s a lot in a short amount of time.
The session was relatively brief. The legislative volume was not out of the ordinary, but were there really 1,288 ways Arkansas needed to be fixed – especially this way, this fast?
This is not a column bashing legislators, whom I find to be generally honorable and likable, with flaws like the rest of us. Many are idealists who spent months walking the streets of their hometowns campaigning for office with no guarantee they would win.
They want all that work to mean something, which is why they filed an average of 16.4 bills per legislator. (There are 135 legislative seats, but one was vacant this session.) Many lawmakers are reluctant to vote against each other’s bills for fear of offending someone they may need later for their own legislation – plus, it just feels kind of rude. As a result, many bills are passed with overwhelming majorities, at least in one chamber. Because there are so many bills – and because legislators don’t have staff members to read them – most of the important work happens in committee. There’s just too much to do in too little time.
The Legislature’s cooperative spirit enables it generally to get its work done – unlike Congress. Under the Revenue Stabilization Act, Arkansas state government will not run a deficit this upcoming fiscal year. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office projects Uncle Sam will add $468 billion to the national debt in 2015 – the equivalent of about $1,459 per American, and this was a good year. In contrast to the Legislature’s 1,288 acts, Congress passed 296 laws over a two-year period in 2013-14 and 283 in 2011-12, according to the Pew Research Center. In other words, the Legislature passed more than twice as many laws in 81 days as Congress passed in four years.
Congress and the Legislature exist in very different universes. Congress deals in trillions while the Legislature deals in billions. Congress governs a vast, diverse country with significant regional and partisan differences. In the Arkansas Legislature, most Democrats and Republicans have similar viewpoints. The politics is less professional in Arkansas – though it’s moving in that direction.
Still, it probably would be best if Congress were more like the Legislature and if the Legislature were a little more like Congress. Passing 1,288 laws in 81 days – that’s just too many.
So here’s a modest proposal: Each legislator should be limited to filing about 10 bills per session. That would have cut the number to 1,340 this year, creating a more deliberate process and giving legislators a chance to focus on their priorities. If a bill is only 11th on their list, it can’t be that important to them.
This should start as a flexible rule of thumb enforced by the Legislature’s culture rather than a formal, legal limit enforced by law. Issues arise late in a session – for example, banning adoption “rehoming” – and legislators need to be able to file another bill if they are the best positioned to do so.
The downside would be that legislators would write longer, broader bills – try to get two for the price of one, in other words. Yes, that’s a danger, but the more a bill tries to do, the more likely it will contain provisions that draw opposition.
In 1,288 ways, legislators over the past three months have changed Arkansas through the force of government. Some of those laws were good and some weren’t, but all of them were passed in a hurried environment that places too much emphasis on passing bills for passing bills’ sake. Lawmakers should slow down and do less, but do it more deliberately.
I need to make a correction. In a column about the Legislature’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act published around April 1, I wrote that I voted against the state’s 2004 amendment banning gay marriage. I had my elections confused. I voted in 2008 against a ban on unmarried couples adopting or fostering children, which also passed. It was aimed at gays and lesbians and also affected heterosexual unmarried couples.
I’m pretty sure I voted for the gay marriage ban in 2004. I would not vote that way today. Americans should not look to the government to define marriage. Let the government focus its attention elsewhere – and pass fewer laws at the state level thanks to a 10-bill limit. See above.