Callaghan: Washington Legislature acting an awful lot like Congress




People often ask me, “Why can’t the Washington State Legislature be more like Congress?”

Congress, the apex of parliamentary bodies. Americans revere that most American of institutions, often awarding it approval ratings in the low single digits. Where do people from disparate backgrounds, with vastly divergent views, who represent different regions with different needs come together and reach consensus? Congress.

Despite having a tutor like that, Washington’s Legislature has not been able to follow the congressional lead. Too often, state lawmakers reached compromise across party lines at times when grandstanding and brinkmanship were called for. Getting some of what they want was good enough. Letting each side claim victory was seen as a positive result.

Sure, they bicker and fight and seek partisan advantage in Olympia. But they’ve always been able to complete a biennial budget before constitutional deadlines. As you can imagine, that type of thing has not gone over well with the voting public. That hardly meets the level of partisanship and division they’ve learned to love. Be more like Congress, they demand.

It is with great pride that I can tell the voting public that it’s about to get its wish. Not only can our Legislature be more like Congress, but it will be. And it just might do so with that quintessential congressional move, the government shutdown.

Washington state works on a two-year budget cycle,which runs out at midnight June 30. Laws require that the Legislature have a new budget ready by June 1 to give the bureaucrats and agencies time to put it into place. That deadline has come and gone. With the expiration of the first 30-day special session Tuesday, and no budget agreement in sight, the June 30 ultimate deadline creeps even closer. If a budget isn’t approved by then, government might have to shut down all but services considered vital for the health and safety of the citizenry.

Lawmakers stay mum

Actually, the details of a shutdown are kind of a blur because we’ve never succeeded in emulating Congress to this degree before. No worries, though. It worked out so well for Newt Gingrich, it will certainly produce equal results for Washington state legislators.

How did we get here? The residents and voters of the state are not deemed trustworthy enough to know the details. Gov. Jay Inslee and leaders of the four political caucuses in the House and Senate (five if you count the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus as separate from the Senate Republican Caucus) have pledged confidentiality to one another.

While we are denied any details of what might lead to a shutdown, we are thankfully being kept fully apprised of the resulting partisan rhetoric. Inslee says he is more concerned about “one million students than millionaires,” a reference to a dustup over how to clarify an estate tax for education that the state Supreme Court mucked up. Inslee and Democrats, responded Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, want more tax revenue, not for schools, but to provide “bucks for bureaucrats.”

For those who are too wimpy to ride blindly into a shutdown, who are not committed enough to their rhetoric to reject compromise, there is another path. They could negotiate a deal that gives both sides some of what they need.

That means the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus could give some on increased revenue, either via some loopholes or by correcting contrary court rulings or both so as to win reforms they want. That means House Democrats could reduce their resistance to those reforms in public education and worker rules so as to protect social services from deeper cuts.

Both could then brag that they defended their principles but also acknowledge they didn’t get it all. They would live out Habit No. 5 in the late Joel Pritchard’s “10 Habits of Highly Effective Legislators:” “They realize that changes often come in a series of small steps.” Of course, that wouldn’t be very congressional.