Olympia for Dummies

Commentary: What Mean Girls, Animal House and Austin Powers can teach us about how the Legislature really works.
Crosscut archive image.

Credit: John Stang

Commentary: What Mean Girls, Animal House and Austin Powers can teach us about how the Legislature really works.

You've read the civics textbooks.

On how our state government consists of three co-equal branches — a governor, Legislature and Supreme Court. How bills are introduced and debated in committee. How the best bills go the floors of the Senate and House where everyone votes on their merits after studious debates. Compromises are made and the best of all worlds prevails. Democracy rocks big time.

Yeah, right.

This is what really happens in Olympia: For the past two years, almost every new idea from each side got shot down. Then everyone congratulated themselves on passing a balanced budget. That's despite the fact that it took a looming partial government shutdown to pass a budget in 2013, and an agreement to not really do anything in 2014 to pass that supplemental budget.

All this means is that our Legislature has operated in a time-honored American way, dating back to our forefathers in the Continental Congress as shown in the 1969 musical and 1972 movie "1776."

Actually, getting anything done in Olympia is difficult, because life under our Capitol Dome is complicated. Think of the social dynamics of a high school lunchroom with a governor, Tea Partiers, Seattle uber-liberals, liberal moderates, conservative moderates, conservatives, huge lobbying groups, individual small lobbyists, partisan staffers, neutral staffers, state officials with 12-word titles, and the press all mixed together. The film "Mean Girls" maps out all that complexity.

The top cliques in this Olympia lunchroom are Gov. Jay Inslee, the Democrats controlling the House and the Republicans running the Senate.

Our governor is an upbeat, moderate-liberal science and sports geek who has largely bogged down during his two-year initiation period in Olympia. Now, Inslee wants to push an ambitious agenda through the Legislature — cutting carbon emissions by charging polluters; using that money for transportation, education and tax rebates for the poor; closing some tax breaks; and creating a capital gains tax. Inslee has a colorful way of speaking, not only quoting the movie "Animal House" in his very first gubernatorial press conference, but also using a really obscure quote from that movie. His favorite 2013 rallying phrase was "we must focus like a laser beam on this," a war cry that saw less use in 2014. Now, a key question is: Can the governor unleash his laser beam arsenal again in 2015?

Inslee's greatest foes are the 25 Senate Republicans and their one Democratic Senate ally who form the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. So far, no major Inslee proposition has been able to pass the Senate. Face it, the Senate Republicans really don't like the governor. Whatever Inslee is for, they're against it. Whatever the House Democrats are for, they're against it.  If Inslee discovered a cure for cancer, the GOP would question him about losing oncology jobs. The Republicans don't like taxes, adore tax breaks, they think the Washington Supreme Court is too big for its britches. They think the state government is too fat, though they’re sometimes a bit hazy on what exactly needs to be trimmed.

Meanwhile across the Capitol Rotunda is the House, dominated by Democrats. The Ds want to do stuff, or they are incessantly plotting to take away your money and your freedoms — depending on who you talk to. They're the tax-and-spend crowd. The schemers.  Out to conquer and control. Their leader is House Speaker Frank Chopp, rarely seen and fond (though we have not been able to confirm it) of petting white long-haired cats. But watch this video of the inner workings of the House Democratic Caucus, and you'll become convinced that every GOPer is really 007 saving us from a master manipulator.

Now, the Legislature's purpose is to legislate. Write and pass bills to create budgets and laws to make Washington a better place to live.

We've got 147 senators and representatives, each wanting to make his or her mark on the state, and to look after his or her district. That translates to the submission of lots of bills, at least a thousand. But a legislator's batting average for getting bills passed is usually worse that a real-life baseball player's. We're talking the Mendoza Line for most legislators. A batting average of more than .200 is actually extremely good in Olympia. Countless pitfalls face a bill from submittal to floor vote, almost all occurring behind the scenes and controlled by the majority party in each chamber.

If a bill survives the committee stage, it means the majority party likes it well enough to send to a full floor vote. That's because the majority party controls all the committee chairpersons, and they control the flow of bills.

At that point, the majority party leaders decide which bills will actually go to floor votes. This is a complicated process that includes gamesmanship with the opposite party controlling the other chamber. Decisions are made regarding which bills are purely political statements and which could conceivably pass the opposite chamber. The process is also strategic, involving each caucus' game plan for the end of the session when trades are made and who the caucus leaders at mad at during a particular moment. The end game often involves rewards and punishments.

All a minority caucus can do is think of ways to publicly criticize a bill it hates prior to losing the upcoming floor vote.

The caucus leaders will meet with their full caucus to provide instructions and guidance for a floor vote. Then there is a dignified floor debate in which each side masks its true feelings about each other with the time-honored parliamentary cushion on outward respect for their foes. Then the majority party wins all floor votes because its leaders will only allow sure things onto the floor.

So what will be the Legislature's biggest headaches this session?

There will be the struggle to find an extra $3.28 billion to pay for the 2015-2017 requirements from the Washington Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary ruling and from last November's passage of Initiative 1351. These two measures call for drastically improving the student-to-teacher ratios in Grades K-12. In other words, the state has to pay for hiring more teachers. Lurking in the background is the threat of Supreme Court sanctions if the Legislature does not come up with a decent McCleary plan to improve the ratios in Grades K-3 by the end of the 2015 session.

Then there's Inslee's push to fight carbon emissions, global warming and ocean acidification. The governor thinks climate change is a real problem.

And there's the transportation package impasse in which Democrats and Republicans have spent more time not seriously talking than actually negotiating a $10 billion- to $12 billion-worth of highway, bridge and ferry projects over the next 10 years. To put this deadlock into perspective, the Democrats and Republicans have stalled on this for 21 months compared to the 13 months that Bertha — Seattle' plagued tunnel boring machine — has been out of commission beneath the city. Inslee recently proposed a $12.2 billion 12-year transportation package with charges on polluters and no gas tax hike, which might turn Olympia's current stare-off into an active debate.

Finally, there will be the budget debates, which won't be resolved until the end-of-the-session's horse trading. The Democrats will call for more taxes and fewer tax-breaks. The GOP will cry that absolutely no new revenue will be needed and all the state needs is a little bit of belt-tightening. Maybe someone will come up with an outside-the-box compromise.

Now remember that huge number of bills that died a few paragraphs ago in this story. Killed by deadlines and hostile committee chairpersons. An Olympia saying is that no bill never really dies. During the final budget negotiations, dead bills are routinely revived and attached to the final budget legislation to be passed, with most people unaware of what was tacked to the bill.

Think of a bill as a vampire able to remove the stake through his heart.

Which seems a fitting place to end today’s civics lesson.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8