Why liberalism is dead here: pandering and premature capitulation

What's the matter with Washington? An ex-legislator decries the way Democrats roll over without a fight, pass bogus budgets, and then claim Tim Eyman made them do it.

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Tim Eyman, the Democrats' bête noire: You can only get away with blaming him for so long.

What's the matter with Washington? An ex-legislator decries the way Democrats roll over without a fight, pass bogus budgets, and then claim Tim Eyman made them do it.

The second special legislative session of 2011 brought a so-called “down payment” on our state’s systemic budget crisis, with no new taxes to cover it. The public may again be beguiled into believing we can escape harm through clever accounting. Now the interlude before the regular session allows us to take stock of how we got here. 

It must be Tim Eyman’s fault, right? When Democrats surrender, Eyman is the white flag that keeps on waving. What's happening in Olympia is not dissimilar to what's happened at the federal level, as Chris Lehmann notes in his book Rich People Things: “The Obama Administration defended its capitulation on the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in the same fashion that all spineless Democrats have rationalized their giveaways to the privileged class since the age of Reagan: It claimed to be hostage to adverse political circumstance.”  

Funny how Republicans never let themselves be held hostage.

In blaming Tim Eyman, we ignore the facts. We can’t blame him for lost revenue from value-based car tabs, because a Democratic legislature and governor reinstated Eyman's Initiative 695 in 2000 after it was overturned in court. They did not allow any public hearings. It’s a testament to Washington’s culture of political permanency that 11 of the bill’s Senate sponsors are still serving 12 years later. Yet, ironically, the Democrat who was the bill’s prime senate sponsor was defeated for re-election eight months later.

A 1999 Associated Press article pegged I-695’s annual revenue loss at $750 million. With inflation, that lost revenue exceeds state budget cuts in the last couple years – and since then billions of dollars in additional tax breaks have been passed. 

That’s the problem with pandering. The cost is bigger than the payoff. 

Now, of course, we’re told that because of Tim Eyman the Legislature can’t restore money lost to its own past decisions. Initiative 1053 effectively bars legislators from unilaterally raising taxes by requiring a two-thirds vote, forcing the Legislature to go to voters through a referendum. 

But any legislative revenue increase might have been subjected to a repeal referendum effort anyway. In 2010, after a simple majority of the Legislature could, and did, raise taxes (though by too modest a degree), the regressive portion was subjected to a repeal initiative, I-1107.

Thus, I-1053 merely made it easier to obtain a public vote on any new taxes; it didn't make it more likely that someone would do so. Because a referendum only requires 120,577 signatures, I-1053 isn’t even much of a ballot shortcut. 

I-1053 forces legislators to communicate the necessity of obtaining revenue to preserve public services. In other words, it makes them provide leadership. Beyond a few exceptions, have you noticed any coming from them? 

In post-meltdown, pre-Tea Party 2009, had the Legislature given voters the choice to raise taxes, I’m confident they would have done so. In neighboring Oregon, voters affirmed a 2009 tax increase after big business subjected it to a repeal effort – and under the Oregon Constitution a legislative super-majority was required to raise taxes in the first place. 

Learned helplessness only prevails if you let it. But the most powerful force in Washington politics is inertia. We are victims of our own low expectations. We are the frog that slowly boils in the pot; after $10.5 billion in cuts, will we finally hop out?

On November 18 a Tea Party-backed balanced-budget amendment passed the U.S. House. It would have required — in I-1053-like fashion — a three-fifths vote to raise taxes beyond the current budget level. Jay Inslee was one just 25 Democrats to vote for it; 161 voted no.

You can’t blame Tim Eyman for I-1053 if your standard-bearer supports the same principle. And if it wasn't clear enough that our message is belied by our acts, the final proof is a redistricting that has overtly invited multimillionaire Democrats (i.e., the "1 percent") to run for our two open U.S. House seats

As politics devolve, politicians devolve too. Thus, the all-cuts Rossi/Locke budget of 2003 now appears to have been a watershed moment. Then, 43 legislative Democrats voted against it. This year, amidst all the bipartisan froth for an all-cuts biennial budget largely dictated by Senate Republicans, only 2 Democrats voted no. 

It’s not enough to rally and Occupy. We must demand accountability. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” 

We can't merely require that Democrats be (marginally) better than Republicans. We must demand that Democrats become again the party of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in his acceptance speech for the 1936 Democratic nomination said of the 1 percent, “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Blaming Republicans and/or Tim Eyman will not feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate our kids, or keep vulnerable citizens healthy. There comes a point where you have a moral responsibility to own the problem and take charge. Will we?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brendan Williams

Brendan Williams

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams was a Washington state representative from 2005-11.