When state government reconvenes this month, Democrats ought to have been 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.
But that’s not what’s going to happen.
Instead, Olympia, this year, for the first time in anyone’s memory, will 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 to elect a Republican majority leader and, subsequently, give control of the state senate to the GOP.
This has never happened before.
Oh, sure, 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 deeply radical ideologues that, here as elsewhere, now dominate the GOP. (News flash to local media: Dan Evans was last governor 36 years ago.)
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.
Bigger and bigger impacts
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 (now-retired Sen. Jim Kastama, who didn’t even survive the primary in his bid 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. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget.
However, the issue is far larger. The biggest impact in Olympia 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 situation the modern GOP has left the U.S. Congress in.
Remember the famous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1947-48, which Harry Truman successfully ridiculed in his upset win for reelection? 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 the recent school massacre in Newtown, Conn. But the Senate Law and Justice Committee will now be controlled by Spokane Valley’s Republican Sen. Mike Padden, rated A+ by the National Rifle Association in his reelection 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 supporting 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 consider remotely similar bills. About all 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.
Not a democracy
The amazing thing is, nobody voted for this. Voters understood that we could change control of the Senate (or, less likely, the House) by voting in more Republicans in 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 will reflect the will of both parties.
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.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.