Progress in Olympia, stalemates in Congress

Bipartisanship in Olympia passed a tough budget, with gains for both parties. It could happen in Congress, if each side would withdraw proposals that the other side will never pass.

Crosscut archive image.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Clark County

Bipartisanship in Olympia passed a tough budget, with gains for both parties. It could happen in Congress, if each side would withdraw proposals that the other side will never pass.

We live in an era of divided government.  Republicans largely governed America from the Civil War to the Great Depression.  Democrats were the dominant party from 1932 to the Reagan realignment of 1980.  For the past 30 years, neither party has been able to achieve long term governing majorities.  Even in Olympia, where Republicans have not elected a governor since 1980, the GOP has usually held enough seats in the legislature to influence policy. 

When power is shared the two parties must work together to get anything done.  Once again this year, politicians in the state capitol accepted that fact and made tough decisions in order to pass a state budget.  The question is, will our “leaders” in Washington D.C. ever abandon the permanent campaign and decide to work to together to solve problems?

As  I wrote earlier this year, the Democrats  hold majorities in both houses of the legislature, but a handful of moderate Democratic  senators who are willing to oppose their party’s leaders empowered Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, the GOP’s leader on budget issues.  Democrats in the Senate accepted the fact that they had to work with Zarelli and agreed to a bipartisan process

Zarelli and his conservative/moderate Senate coalition sought to use their leverage on the budget to achieve other policy objectives:  a constitutional amendment lowering the state’s debt limit, making major changes to the state’s insurance program for injured workers, and adopting a system based on evaluations rather than seniority for laying off teachers.  Predictably, on these major issues neither side got 100 percent of what they wanted.  The debt limit will be lower, but the new limit will not be placed in the constitution. A compromise was reached on structured settlements for injured workers. The debate on how to evaluate and remove teachers was deferred until the state develops a new four-tier evaluation system for educators, scheduled to come online for the 2012-2013 school year.

In the end, Zarelli got a budget that — for the first time since 1997 — did not spend beyond the state’s estimated revenues, which was his primary objective.  To get there, the budget cuts human services programs, support for higher education, teacher and education support staff salaries, and raises class sizes in the earliest grades.

You can argue over whether or not the 2011 legislature made the right decisions.  It certainly didn’t make anyone happy.  Zarelli, in fact, did not have the support of most of the Republicans in the legislature, as all the Republicans in the House and half the Republicans in the Senate voted no on the final budget.  What you can’t dispute, however, is the fact that Republican and Democratic leaders worked together and made difficult and politically brave decisions on major issues of public policy.

This stands in stark contrast to the situation in Washington D.C. where Republicans and Democrats seem far more interested in gotcha politics than they are in actually getting anything done.  On what are arguably the three major issues affecting America’s future — the budget deficit and the national debt, health care, and energy and climate — Republicans and Democrats seem content to yell at each other rather than negotiate.

House Republicans used their new majority status to push through a 2012 budget on a party line vote authored by Rep. Paul Ryan.  The Ryan budget cuts spending by $6 trillion over 10 years, but it includes provisions converting Medicare to a program of private insurance, something that Democrats and the public will likely never support. 

At least House Republicans have a plan.  Democrats have refused to offer a budget, spending all their energy instead attacking the Ryan plan. The Obama administration created, and then ignored, a commission on the national debt, rejecting their recommendations without offering any alternatives.  Vice President Joe Biden is holding talks with congressional leaders on budget issues, but the talks seem centered on achieving a short-term deal to raise the debt limit later this summer, rather than comprehensive, long-term deficit reduction. 

On energy and health care, the two sides aren’t even talking.  Both sides seem determined to wait until the next election, when their side might finally have the votes to impose their will.  The problem is, to govern without compromise requires winning the White House, a House majority, and a 60-vote super majority in the Senate.  And that means not just 60 senators of your party, but 60 senators who are willing to follow their party’s leadership.  With a bar that high, it is virtually impossible for one party to win a dominant victory.  The “next election” never comes and nothing of substance gets done.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Congress faces no real deadlines, and doesn’t have to balance its budget.  In Olympia, the session is required to end after 105 days (60 days during even numbered years) and state and local governments must pass balanced budgets.  Members of Congress can just kick the can forward and borrow billions of dollars from China, rather than make tough decisions.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Compromise is possible if both sides are willing to give up on ideas the other side will never accept.  On the budget, Republicans need to drop their proposals to privatize safety net programs like Medicare.  Democrats need to abandon the idea of tax increases, even on “the rich.”  Once the deal breakers for both sides are off the table they ought to be able to agree on the sorts of structural changes in discretionary spending and entitlement programs proposed by the Obama debt commission, such as capping domestic spending, means testing Social Security and Medicare benefits, and gradually raising the retirement age.

On energy and climate issues, Republicans want more domestic oil and gas production,  Democrats want greater reliance on alternative fuels.  Isn’t some sort of “all of the above” compromise possible?  Couldn’t Republicans and Democrats agree on a policy of increased production in the short term, combined with steadily increasing mileage and emissions standards as more affordable green technology comes on line?  Again, if Republicans will drop plans to drill in Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge, and Democrats give up on cap and trade, maybe a deal could be made.

And on health care, with a single payer public option seemingly off the table why isn’t a compromise possible?  Both sides agree that there are many changes that could be made to our current employer-based private system to increase access and reduce costs, but instead of negotiating, both sides are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the individual mandate at the heart of “Obamacare.”  Regardless how the court rules, Republicans will continue to deny the new health care system the funding it needs.  The battle will go on and on.

We have all become so accustomed to the federal partisan gridlock we now assume it is normal or unavoidable.  It isn’t.  Republicans and Democrats compromise and work together all the time at the state and local level.  For eight years I served on the King County Council with a 7-6 Republican majority, but a Democratic County Executive.  We routinely set our differences aside and passed budgets and major pieces of public policy.

It’s time Republicans and Democrats accept the fact that the other side isn’t going away anytime soon.  If liberal Democrats like Speaker Frank Chopp and Sen. Ed Murray can work collaboratively with a conservative Republican like Joe Zarelli to pass a state budget, then Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama ought to be able to work with Republican Speaker John Boehner.  America’s future depends on it, and voters should demand it


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.