Callaghan: As special session drags on, lawmakers become scarce

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The Washington Legislature has gone underground.

Deep underground. Like urban guerilla underground.

Three weeks into a no-more-than-30-day special session, the leaders spend most of their time hidden from view. They emerge only to resupply, maybe shave, before returning to various hidden locations to develop strategy and sometimes negotiate a truce of sorts between rival insurgencies.

At some point, we hope, they will emerge to unveil an agreed-upon manifesto that many will dub "The Budget." It will outline their vision for a new society primarily run by those same leaders. The followers will be required to approve and even praise this document, or risk being ostracized … or worse.

At least that's what we think might happen. Reporters who cover the Legislature have been relegated to guessing what is going on. Most have become practiced at interpreting the vague public statements made during those rare reappearances by the leaders, to make judgments as to changes in power structures based on which leaders stand in which order during photo opportunities.

The leaders of the Soviet Union were more transparent … and they dressed better.

What explains the underground Legislature?

Whenever they are asked for details of what they are discussing, when they might be finished, why they don't shower, they respond with a code phrase that is a variation on the theme of "We're not going to negotiate in the press."

I think they say that because, you know, no one likes "the press," and they can score some points with their hard-core supporters by distancing themselves from the mainstream media. And it's better than saying, "We don't want the public to know what we're doing," which essentially is the same thing.If they choose to negotiate in the press — something they did for 105 days of the regular session without any apparent harm — the press then would tell the public, and the public then could become involved.

Decline in transparency

As much as elected politicians talk about "the public," and how they work for "the public," and how they are there to do "the public's" bidding, they do an awful lot of "the public's" business in places and in ways that exclude the public. In fact, it seems the desire to act in public declines in direct correlation with the number of days they have spent in session.

There comes a time when they figure they can't please all of the public all of the time, and a budget deal often means that some in the public will be unhappy in order that others in the public will be pleased. The less time, therefore, between releasing details of a deal and voting on a deal, the more chances there are of hanging on to enough votes to pass the deal and go home.

They also might say, if inflicted with an uncontrollable urge for candor, that "We don't want the lobbyists to know what we're doing." Because if they chose to negotiate in the press, the press would tell the public, and the public includes the lobbyists. And if lobbyists know ahead of time that their clients are getting mistreated in a proposed budget, they can mobilize and persuade other legislators to oppose the deal before it even becomes a deal.

That's the only interpretation of "We don't want to negotiate in the press" that makes any sense. Because, as I said, most of these folks enjoy nothing more than negotiating in the press. That's why they have press conferences to release their ideas and their positions and their budgets. That's why the other side then has its own press conferences to disagree and present their alternatives.

That, apparently, is a fine practice until they get down to actually reaching agreements and dividing the spoils. Then they go underground.

So we get to watch only when it suits the purposes of the negotiators. Once it doesn't, transparent government becomes a dirty phrase, kind of like "the press."