There are 135 members of the Arkansas House and Senate, and for all of them, it’s a part-time job, or at least, it’s supposed to be. What do they do with the rest of their time, and why does that matter?
The most represented occupation, not surprisingly, is the law. Twenty-three legislators, or 17 percent, are associated with the legal profession. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the percentage of lawyer/legislators nationwide is the same.
Gov. Mike Beebe, Speaker of the House Davy Carter , R-Cabot, and Senate President Pro Tempore Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, are attorneys. Carter also is a banker, by the way – one of at least five that I count in the Legislature.
This is not a column to bash lawyers. Legislators make laws. That 17 percent sounds about right.
It’s low compared to the U.S. Congress. According to the Congressional Research Service, 38 percent of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 57 of the 100 U.S. senators have legal degrees.
That 57 percent in the Senate explains a lot about why it has become the most dysfunctional legislative body in America. Lawmaking is supposed to bring together diverse people who think differently but work collaboratively. The legal system is based on antagonism.
I wouldn’t want any profession to dominate the Senate. Can you imagine if 57 senators were newspaper columnists? Nothing would get done, and the speeches would go on forever.
While lawyers are influential in Little Rock, they are not dominant. Seventeen of the 23 attorneys in the state Legislature are Democrats and 12 of those are in the House, and this is the year of the Republicans, especially in the House.
In some places, attorneys are almost nonexistent – for example, in the education committees. There’s not a single lawyer on the eight-member Senate Education Committee, and on the 20-member House Education Committee, there’s one.
That committee, instead, is dominated by educators – 12 of them who either currently work in that profession, once did or are retired. That background affects the way they react to the bills they’re presented.
Educators, in fact, make up 18 of the 135 legislators, or about 13 percent of the Legislature. Ten of the 18 are Democrats. There also are two day care owners, both Republicans.
This being Arkansas, about 20 legislators are associated with agriculture, but this being Arkansas, half list other occupations. Another three are involved in timber.
Other well-represented professions? I count 12 associated with construction or contracting at least part-time, and another two involved in the lumber industry. Eleven work or have worked in some form of government service, including two who have been county judges. Eight legislators are associated with insurance or finance, while eight are involved in real estate, though it’s the sole occupation of only two of them.
What professions are not well represented? Five are involved in the medical field, including Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, a dentist, and Rep. Stephen Magie, D-Conway, the only doctor in the House. Considering that health care and Medicaid are the most important issues this session, that’s low. Three are engineers and two are accountants. We need more of both considering all the money that the Legislature spends, and what it spends it on. Two made careers in the military: Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, who is retired, and Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, who is a colonel in the National Guard. Rep. John Catlett, D-Dover, a retired State Police officer, is the only career law enforcer I could find.
Finally, three are full-time ministers. Two others list auctioneering as one of their occupations. The House Education Committee is chaired by Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, a funeral director. He jokes around some.
What’s missing? I don’t see a lot I would categorize as "small business owners," though that’s a vague term. I also don’t see many from the corporate world. In both cases, it’s probably not practical to leave work to make laws in Little Rock three months at a time.
Of course, unless you are retired, when would it be?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org