If you call the Capitol Building to leave a message for representatives serving in the Arkansas House, you may be in for a surprise. There’s a new rule at the Capitol: You can only leave a message for the representative from your district.
Now, that may not come as a surprise to some, but two years ago you could leave messages for multiple representatives at a time—or for any representative you wanted. That’s changed now. And some may wonder why that’s a big deal—after all, a representative from Pine Bluff wasn’t elected by voters in Fayetteville. Well, there are five good reasons why it’s important for Arkansans to be able to communicate with any representative in the Arkansas House of Representatives.
- Representatives govern more than just their home district. This policy assumes that a legislator is really only responsible for his or her home district. But when a legislator votes on a bill, that bill doesn’t just go on the books as a law for one particular district. It’s codified into the State Code. It becomes law for the entire state. It affects every Arkansan. And as such, a representative has the responsibility to take into account how the bill will affect parts of the state other than his or her home district. That means he or she needs to be able to hear from people in other districts in other parts of the state. Otherwise, how can legislators know for sure how a bill they’re about to vote on affects other Arkansans?
- Using legislative committees assumes that a representative is interested in more than just his or her home district. If legislators are only responsible for their home districts, why do we divide them up into committees? We put twenty representatives on each House committee, and before a bill can be voted on by the entire House of Representatives, it must first get an affirmative vote from one of these committees. What if eighty percent of the voters in Arkansas support a bill? If they live in the eighty districts that are not represented on the committee that will hear that bill, those voters will not be allowed to call the committee members about the bill at the Capitol.
- Voters in a neighboring district probably share values similar to the voters of a legislator’s home district. Prudent legislators are interested in trends and opinions in districts that neighbor their own. Why? Because there’s a good chance voters in Russellville have opinions similar to the voters in Clarksville. Public opinion doesn’t stop at district borders. And if the voters in a representative’s neighboring district are upset about a bill, there’s a good chance that voters in the representative’s home district will be equally upset. Why is that important? It tells representatives they aren’t just hearing from a vocal minority back home. It tells them that opposition or support of a bill is widespread. It tells them that a lot of Arkansans have concerns, and that those concerns are worth heeding.
- This rule is inconsistent with the rules governing other forms of lobbying. Currently, any Arkansan can address a legislative committee, regardless of whether or not their representative is on the committee. By this logic, Arkansans would only be allowed to address committees on which their representatives sit. That would be ridiculous! Any Arkansan can address any representative on any committee. It should be the same way for a phone call.
- This rule prevents citizens from lobbying effectively. Paid lobbyists can lobby any representative they want. They don’t have to jump through hoops with a switchboard operator at the Capitol Building. If they’re in the Capitol Building, they can talk to any representative they want, send a memo in to any representative they want, and (if they have money) invite any representative they want to sit down with them for dinner. Arkansans who work regular day jobs don’t have that luxury. They may not even be able to afford to take vacation time to drive down to Little Rock for the day to speak to a legislative committee. For some, the telephone is the only means they have of lobbying the elected officials who govern them, and the Arkansas House has decided to limit citizens’ ability to do just that. Legislators don’t just represent lobbyists. They represent voters. Every voter. And every voter should have the ability to call any representative in the Arkansas Capitol Building.
The bottom line is that the people making the rules for the House of Representatives have decided that they are not interested in hearing from the majority of Arkansans. They probably just don’t want to deal with phone messages from hundreds of angry voters when they cast a bad vote. They’d rather stifle the voice of the people. The Speaker of the House of Representatives traditionally has a hand in making these rules. It’s time he and the other representatives involved quit playing games with the People of Arkansas, and started letting the voters of our state communicate openly with the legislators who govern them. After all, what’s next? Will they stop publishing contact info for the legislators altogether?