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Communication Breakdown: A Note on the Robbie Wills Brouhaha

Updated: Apr 13

House Speaker Robbie Wills

I spent a good deal of time with radio, TV and print journalists Wednesday discussing Arkansas House Speaker Robbie Wills’s proposed changes to the House Information Office. Somewhere in the middle of these conversations, he called me to clarify his plans and his views. So let me help him clarify matters.

Tuesday afternoon, Robbie sent out a news release which said “Information Offices, by their nature, occupy themselves with the distribution of neutral, non-partisan facts … The [new] House Communications Office will take information services a step further by becoming a more effective advocate for the House and its membership.” Wednesday, Robbie said that his use of the word “advocate” had been misinterpreted, and that the office would equally serve all House members, regardless of affiliation.

Wednesday morning, according to the Arkansas News Bureau, Robbie’s new mission for the office was to “advocate the objectives of the House leadership.” Wednesday afternoon, Robbie said that the Arkansas News Bureau story was a mistaken paraphrase, and that concerns that the office would favor the House leadership were unfounded.

I take the speaker at his word. I believe him when he says he will make every effort to make the office work for the benefit of all House members, not for the benefit of any particular member or point of view.

But it seems to me that Robbie must be considerably more careful when he describes new missions for the House Information Office, especially if these new missions might suggest a departure from the office’s traditional mission of serving as a neutral and nonpartisan source of information. (I think Robbie might even agree with me on that.)

I discussed the reasons for this at my press conference yesterday, which include the fact that employees take their cues from the example at the top. I think Robbie also needs to be more careful about his statements about the agreement of “all the Republicans that are in leadership,” given that he apparently was referring only to the committee chairmen that he appointed, as opposed to (say) vice-chairmen of committees like myself or House Republican Leader Bryan King.

Furthermore, it still seems obvious to me that giving the office the job of advocacy in any sense is a large policy mistake, given that it opens the door to a taxpayer-funded office which will express political views without any accountability at the ballot box. If Robbie genuinely feels that there is institutional advocacy that must be made (his example: suppose the House passes a bill, but the Senate is dragging its feet?), I would suggest that the speaker or an individual member could carry that burden, rather than assigning it to a faceless, taxpayer-funded, and politically-unaccountable bureaucratic office.

Each member of the House has interests, and it’s a mistake to pretend that the House’s interests are separate enough from those individual interests that we need to deputize an additional political spokesman, who voters will never be able to confront at the ballot box, for the entire body.

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