Columns » Max Brantley

D.C. politics in Arkansas

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The 2013 legislative session, with its first Republican majority, resembled partisan-driven Washington in many ways, though the narrow 51-49 Republican edge in the House forced some bipartisan accommodation.

The bullies of the GOP apparently foresee even better partisan times ahead.

At the state Republican Convention Saturday in Hot Springs, Sen. Bryan King got unanimous approval of a resolution that says House and Senate Republican caucuses should vote for their nominees for speaker and Senate president pro tem and then unanimously support the caucus' choice.

This arises from the election of Republican House Speaker Davy Carter by a solid bloc of Democratic votes and a handful of Republican votes, upsetting GOP Rep. Terry Rice's expected coronation. Republicans have played this game, too. A rump group of them aligned with Democrats to prevent one of their own, Sen. Dave Bisbee, from becoming Senate president pro tem in 2005.

If the caucus demands unanimous votes on leadership, it's a pretty short step from there to demanding unanimous votes on legislation. That's the U.S. House protocol. And it's general Arkansas Republican practice, too, private option excepted. For now.

King favors a legislature in which the majority rules with an iron fist. The minority need not even attend. He's used his co-chairmanship of the Joint Auditing Committee to hound political enemies. He's a member of what now appears to be a controlling Senate minority that could present a legal roadblock to reapproval of the private option version of Obamacare's Medicaid expansion.

King's partisanship doesn't bode well for Arkansas. It means the end of consensus legislation in favor of hyper partisanship. And it will invite debilitating payback from the minority — blockades when possible through the supermajority votes required for some financial legislation.

Of course Republicans just might decide to ignore the rules and challenge opponents to sue when supermajority votes fail — as they did when they unconstitutionally approved a huge fracker tax break for a multinational corporation.

The requirement of party loyalty for legislators works against diversity in party membership, something not lacking on the Democratic side. There's an illustration in Little Rock, where City Director Stacy Hurst is running as a Republican for term-limited Democratic Rep. John Edwards' historically Democratic seat covering the Heights and western Little Rock. She's opposed by Clarke Tucker, a bright young Democratic lawyer.

Hurst, pushed into running as a Republican by tycoon Warren Stephens, probably is the social moderate she claims to be. But can she function as a moderate as a member of the diehard conservative Republican House caucus, now unanimously commanded by the GOP state convention to observe party loyalty?

Would Hurst vote against unconstitutional abortion bills? Would she give a Democratic governor the critical vote to sustain his veto of an unconstitutional frackers' tax break? Would she cast a roll call vote against Republican measures endorsing discrimination against gay people? Will she speak up vigorously against a growing Republican majority speaking ill of Medicaid expansion, an issue worth millions to the giant medical institutions and medical professionals that live in and around her legislative district? Finally, though she vows to be independent, can you believe her given Bryan King's proven record of getting even with those who cross him?

The issue, by the way, is laden with hypocrisy. Back in 2008, rising House Speaker Robbie Wills, a Democrat, helped King raise money against a Democratic opponent because King had supported him in the race for speaker. Wills said he didn't see why partisanship should figure in a speaker's election. King was a happy beneficiary of Wills' broad-mindedness.

But King was in the minority then. And nobody has ever accused him of being broad-minded.

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