Lots of Arkansas legislators have strong feelings about the “private” option: tempers on the House floor have been running high. Several disagreements last week were over “vote pairing” – which is an agreement two House members can reach if they disagree on a bill. Legislators agree to pair their opposite votes if (for instance) one of them can’t be in the chamber at voting time; this allows both votes to be cast and recorded, even if both legislators aren’t present.
Vote pairing can work well if it’s in both legislators’ interests. Last week, however, it appeared that several legislators completely misunderstood how the process works. According to the Arkansas Times, when several legislators declined to pair-vote on the “private” option with Rep. Tommy Wren last week, he exploded in anger on the House floor, yelling out the names of legislators who declined to pair with him.
Speaker Davy Carter then explained his view of vote-pairing:
That’s a common courtesy that has been given to the members as long as this Chamber has been operating…If we’ve got members that want to take such an approach, that’s pretty telling not only to their attitude to what we’re dealing with, but about their approach to the appropriation that we’re talking about. That’s just not reasonable whatsoever.
Carter is wrong. Pair-voting is a device that advances both legislators’ interests; legislators who don’t believe that pair-voting advances their interests are under no obligation of manners or morals to participate in it. Wren is welcome to get as angry as he wants that nobody wants to pair-vote with him; when I was in high school, I wasn’t pleased that [name of high school crush, deleted to protect the guilty] didn’t want to go out on a date with me. Nonetheless, she wasn’t under any obligation to do so.
Carter is far from the first Speaker to be upset at the difficulty of getting 75 votes for his agenda; indeed, he is not the first Speaker to lose his perspective and to insist that people who disagree with him are morally obligated to help him get his way. When I served in the House, then-Speaker Robbie Wills got very upset with a minority of Republicans who didn’t want to help him get the 75 votes he needed for the tax increase he favored. Shortly after his tax increase passed the House, Wills took to his blog and excoriated the behavior of the anti-tax legislators that he beat on the floor:
Case in point: I saw a violently ill member pull himself off his sickbed and drag himself to the House chamber to cast his “yes” vote because we couldn’t find a single solitary opponent to “pair” with him. Pairing is a time-honored legislative professional courtesy extended to members who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend a voting session. The absent member and the present member both sign a form, witnessed and notarized, that locks in their votes. This way, the absent member’s vote counts. It ensures that member’s 28,000 constituents can be represented on that particular issue. It’s also the decent thing to do. In a shocking display of pettiness, the leaders of the opposition enforced a strict “no pair” policy. Therefore, each opponent we approached to pair with our sick colleague turned us down flat. One said they’d been told by “leadership” that a “pair” would be treated the same as a “yes” vote, and “there’d be hell to pay.” Some new members were simply confused by the whole process. So, the sickly supporter had to come to the chamber to cast his vote – the 75th and decisive “yes” vote, as it turned out.
I am not sure who Wills thought was the 75th vote. I am quite sure, however, that one of the last legislators to shakily walk into the chamber that day – and vote for the tax increase Wills championed – was suffering from nothing more than a night of heavy drinking and a morning of an even heavier hangover. Many Republican legislators thought Wills’s comments were intemperate and inappropriate; perhaps he thought so as well, because he apologized for them shortly thereafter and deleted them from his blog. (Notably, the phrase “professional courtesy” is regularly used to justify immoral behavior; the appearance and reappearance of this euphemism is a danger sign.)
There are good reasons for the 75% vote that Arkansas requires in order to spend taxpayer money. It’s a requirement that forces legislators to build consensus. The supermajority requirement is a pretty good reminder that taxpayer money isn’t legislators’ to do with as they will; in fact, it’s a reminder that the state of Arkansas merely holds taxpayer dollars in trust for the people it is supposed to serve. Those who complain that the 75 percent rule is simply too onerous deserve to be reminded of the value the rule serves: when it comes to something as momentous as spending other people’s money, the least the public can ask for is that the advocates of spending should show up for work.
There is no legislative duty whatsoever, either of manners or morals, to pair with a legislative opponent – especially if you think that it assists the passage of legislation you dislike. It is never a legislator’s job to advance a measure that he or she thinks is bad policy. Speaker Wills realized this eventually. Someday, perhaps Speaker Carter will.