The Arkansas House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a resolution doing away with a seniority system for committee assignments.
By a vote of 75-to-23, with one member voting present, the House adopted rules whereby future committee members would be appointed by the House Speaker. The bill, HR1001, needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The resolution does not take effect until after the current House Speaker, Jeremy Gillam of Judsonia, has said he would leave the position in 2019.
The newly adopted rules also allow representatives to raise campaign funds during the biennial fiscal sessions.
Gillam, the sponsor of the resolution, spent nearly an hour answering lawmakers' questions. One chief concern was that too much power would be invested in his position.
“Why does this speaker or any other speaker need more power?” asked Rep. Charles Blake, a Democrat from Little Rock
“It’s not more power,” Gillam replied. “It’s not more power. It’s more work.”
Gillam argued that by changing committee selection rules, freshmen lawmakers would have a better chance of being placed on committees that suit their skill-sets. He said the rule change would follow the pattern of at least 44 other states. Gillam also pushed back against suggestions that future speakers would abuse their committee appointment authority.
"I reject the notion that the people who come behind me are anything but good and decent people,” Gillam said.
The rule change comes after Democrats, who now control 24 of 100 seats in the House, took a slim 11 to 9 majority on the 20-seat Revenue and Taxation panel when committees were picked in November. Democrats lost their committee majority, however, after Rep. Joe Jett later announced he was switching parties.
Democratic Rep. John Walker of Little Rock spoke against the bill. He argued that legislators are elected to pursue interests on behalf of constituents in ways those legislators determined necessary. Whatever committee a legislator chooses to have place on was not a matter for another to decide based on an outside reading of skills, he said.
"We contribute to the outcome of this body in different ways and it’s not on the basis of looking at me or listening to me and knowing about from where I come, determining that I have an appropriate skill-set. What is an appropriate skill set?” Walker asked. “The point is you can’t make those presumptions.”
But Gillam said he expected future speakers have individual meetings with legislators and get to know them and what roles they choose.
“I'm not proposing a dictatorship,” Gillam said. “It works around the entire nation every day.”