Olympia Gathers for Chaos
KAOS is Olympia’s very cool longstanding community radio station. It would be awesome if thousands of people were congregating on our state capitol complex to celebrate it. Alas, they’re descending on Oly Monday to celebrate a different kind of chaos: this year’s state legislative session. And while it’s usually chaotic when, each year, the state crams its entire legislative agenda into 60 or 90 days – a relic of our state constitution’s quaint 19th century notion of part-time, citizen legislators who weren’t “real” politicians – this year will be much, much worse than usual.
As the legislature reconvenes, Democrats ought to be sitting pretty. After all, their party won majorities in both the state senate and house, and elected easily the most progressive governor our state has seen this century. Since Democrats have controlled both Olympia’s executive and legislative branches since pterodactyls still roamed our skies, this should mean, at worst, business as usual; at best, it would mean implementing voters’ clearly expressed preference for a more liberal state government, including reforms that just might raise revenues and help reverse its yearly, structurally induced budget shortfalls and the gutting of essential programs that had followed over the last decade.
But that’s not what’s going to happen
Instead, Olympia this year, for the first time in anyone’s memory, is going to experience something like a minority government. That’s the term used in parliamentary systems, when a party that didn’t get a majority of votes still elects the prime minister and controls parliament, usually by forming alliances with smaller parties. That’s what Republicans are doing in our state senate for 2013-14 – except that the “alliances” will be with two parties of one, Eastside Sen. Rodney Tom and Mason County Sen. Tim Sheldon.
Both Tom and Sheldon have announced that, even though they were elected as Democrats, they will caucus with the Republicans this year, giving a Senate with 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans enough votes for Republicans to elect the Majority Leader and, subsequently, give control of the state senate to the GOP.
This has never happened before. Republicans have controlled a house (or both houses) in Olympia before, but never when the party was almost wholly comprised of and controlled by the sort of deeply radical, reality-challenged ideologues that, here as elsewhere, now dominate the GOP. (News flash to local media: Dan Evans was last governor 36 years ago. Get over it.) The consequences for state government – in a state that only elected one Republican (and a moderate at that) to any statewide office last November – will be far-reaching.
Most attention so far has focused on the state budget, which again this year faces a huge revenue shortfall due to a weak national economy, an Eyman-inspired ban (for all practical purposes) on raising new revenue, and a grossly antiquated tax structure. What will the biennial budget Olympia eventually passes look like? We got a good clue last year, when Tom and Sheldon were two of the three Democrats (Puyallup’s now-retired Sen. Jim Kastama, who didn’t even survive the primary in his campaign for Secretary of State, was the other) who jumped ship and forced the last-minute senate adoption of a Republican-sponsored budget that sharply cut social services and education spending, among many other things. Now Republicans will have a full session to pick apart Gov. Inslee’s proposed budget. Anyone remember the train wreck in last summer’s Super 8?
However, the issue is far larger. The biggest impact in Olympia won’t even be a budget whose cuts will directly lead to the unnecessary deaths of Washingtonians. It will be Republican control of all the senate committees that initially hear and pass bills. To see how this will operate, look at the similar paralysis the modern GOP has left the US Congress in.
Remember the famous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1947-48, which Harry Truman successfully ridiculed in his upset win for re-election? That Congress held the record for decades for having passed the least amount of legislation ever. Until the 2011-12 Congress, which passed fewer than one-fifth as many bills as the Do-Nothings did.
That’s what happens when you have a party controlled by people not only ideologically committed to the abolition of government, but apparently genetically incapable of compromise. At the committee level, that’s who will run the state senate this year.
Want tougher laws on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines? A lot of people do, after Newtown. But the Senate Law and Justice Committee will now be controlled by Spokane Valley’s Sen. Mike Padden (R-Mass Murder), rated “A+” by the NRA in his re-election bid last fall. The chances of any such bill even getting a hearing in his committee are nil. Ditto for any bill looking to help those in need (aka “takers”) in a struggling economy, or anyone who, like the state supreme court, thinks the legislature needs to do a much better job of funding public education, or, say, anyone looking to interfere with the coal industry’s god-given right to roast the planet. Or any of hundreds of other issues. There will be no compromise between legislative houses, because they won’t even be considering remotely similar bills.
The new governor needs to have a host of his appointments approved by the GOP-controlled state senate, too. Republican obstruction of such appointments federally left some of President Obama’s judicial, regulatory, diplomatic, and other appointed offices unfilled for his entire first term – including people with whom the Republicans had no quarrel at all other than that he was appointed by Obama. Inslee is likely to face similar hostility from some, if not many, of Olympia’s Republicans. About the only significant that’s likely to pass this year are the things Olympia legally must pass – like the budget – and that’s going to be a long, ugly battle. Any other urgent legislative business? Or even executive branch business that requires adequate funding and staffing? Come back in 2015.
The amazing thing is, nobody voted for this. Voters understood that we could change control of the state senate (or, less likely, the house) by voting in more Republicans last November – and we chose not to do so. We could have elected a guy widely (and wrongly) perceived as a moderate Republican as our governor – and we didn’t.
Tom is laughably telling his Eastside constituents that he’s helped form a “bipartisan majority,” as if that majority reflects the will of both parties. Instead, he and Sheldon – two people – decided, all on their own, to hand half of the state legislature over to a pack of radicals. The results will be…interesting. They should not, however, be confused with anything resembling democracy.