According to an April opinion poll by the Pew Research Center, while 57 percent of Americans view their state government favorably, only 28 percent feel the same way about the federal government. That’s understandable after watching the events of the past few months.
The Arkansas Legislature met this year, and while there was some poorly conceived legislation, some of which passed, legislators and Gov. Beebe as a whole comported themselves with dignity and governed responsibly. You don’t have to support everything they did to appreciate how, at the State Capitol, the democratic process mostly has been working the way it’s supposed to work.
Case in point: Earlier this month, Arkansans learned that the state will finish the fiscal year with a $300 million surplus. That may come in handy in dealing with some unforeseen expenses like providing scholarships for Arkansas students who attend veterinary and dental schools out of state. Money for scholarships is running short, and Arkansas doesn’t have those kinds of schools.
But we do have a surplus. That’s the thing about not spending money you don’t have. You have some left over if you need it.
Compare that to Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate passed its first budget in four years, in part because it had passed a law saying it wouldn’t pay itself unless it did. The budget was never reconciled with the House version, but the law didn’t say it had to be, so the senators still got paid. In contrast with Arkansas’ $300 million surplus, the Office of Management and Budget recently announced that this year’s federal budget deficit will be $759 billion, or $2,400 for every American man, woman and child.
That’s just new debt, by the way. The total debt accumulated over the centuries is $16.7 trillion, or $53,000 per each of us.
We’ve also watched Congress fail so far to pass immigration reform and this year’s farm bill. In both cases, the Senate passed bills that couldn’t pass the House, and now the House is working on its own versions. Immigration reform is looking less and less likely, but you have to think that surely we’ll get a farm bill this year, right? Right?
In both of those cases, senators worked on their bills as if the House doesn’t exist, even though a bill must pass both chambers and then be signed by the president. It apparently is so hard to pass a bill in one chamber that elected officials are just glad to get it through theirs and then hope for the best after that.
In the Arkansas Legislature, bills often have both Senate and House sponsors. Bills start in one chamber before moving to the other, but groundwork often is being laid in both at the same time, especially on major legislation. Once a bill gets through one chamber, the major sponsor will walk down the hall and fight for it on the other side. After all, there’s little point passing a bill in only one chamber.
Why does Little Rock work pretty well while Washington doesn’t work at all? Part of it is the subject matter. Congress typically debates the biggest, most controversial, most expensive issues that involve our deepest values. State government is more administrative — paving roads, paying for schools, that kind of thing. That said, this year’s so-called Medicaid "private option" was controversial, too, and the Legislature managed to debate it in a statesmanlike fashion.
The big difference between Washington and Little Rock is really the incentives, starting with money. There are billions of dollars floating around Washington. That kind of money has a way of changing group behavior. Also, elected officials can stay in Congress indefinitely if they play their cards right. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving member ever, has been in office nearly 57 years. Some of the most famous members are practically rock stars.
Arkansas’ is much more of a citizen Legislature. Because of term limits, House members only get six years, and then they have to run for something else or go back to being normal people. The speaker of the House this past session, Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, who was in so many headlines just a few months ago, is term-limited and apparently headed out of politics for a while. He’s working as regional president for a bank.
Human nature being what it is, there can be pettiness, meanness and naked ambition in Arkansas politics, too. Democracy here doesn’t always work perfectly.
But at least, unlike Washington lately, it gives us hope that it can work.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.