Field Notes from Olympia: Moeties, closed-door caucus meetings and our open government ideal

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Legislative caucuses are off limits to the press and public, including anthropologists.

The Legislature's two political parties -- with their rituals and totemic animals, donkey and elephant -- act in ways that anthropologists recognize from their study of societies worldwide.

A “moiety” is the division of a society into two or more groups. In many societies, these moieties create identities that shape the lives of their members, determining such things as acceptable marriage partners, for example.

Members of our state legislature belong to two moiety-like groups: Democrats and Republicans. These moeties are represented by their totemic animals  and with few exceptions – Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, is one – moiety members generally conform to the group ideology.

Anthropologists have studied these exclusive, at times secretive organizations in cultures around the world. In some cultures, moeties meet in exclusive clubhouses in rainforest clearings or other sacred and remote spaces. The Arioi in Tahiti, for example, were a cult-like religious order whose many public functions were influenced by decisions they made at secret meetings. Anthropologists are sometimes banned from these secret meeting spaces, limiting their understanding of important discussions and dynamics, and forcing them to rely on gossip and other forms of second hand information.

In contrast, democratic forms of governance champion open public decision-making processes. Laws like Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act and institutions like our Public Disclosure Commission exist to ensure that secret meetings and secret funds do not shape government’s public decision making processes.

Because legislators are required to perform their duties in public – even their state email accounts are open to public scrutiny – my students and I can attend any session where information is presented or decisions are being made. At least in principle. In practice, however, caucus meetings are conducted behind closed doors, where members hammer out strategies and resolve differences while shielded from the public they represent.

My field notes from a recent House Finance Committee hearing on pending marijuana legislation (HB 2136) are a case in point:

“Chair leads introductory discussion of amendments to comprehensive marijuana market and tax reforms, these amendments seek to address disparities caused by high taxes on recreational marijuana, while medical sales have no taxes (HB 2136).  Other amendments seek to allow individual municipalities to add additional taxes to address impacts of legal marijuana on local services. After about five minutes of introductory descriptions of amendments, Chair placed the committee ‘at ease’ and the committee left the room, and members crossed the hall to attend party caucus meetings — these divisions and secretive process make me think of Polynesian club houses, and moieties.”

The parties caucused for more than half an hour, attempting to develop unified party approaches to the amendments. When the Finance Committee hearing reconvened, the chair led a discussion of, and then votes on the amendments.

It was apparent from the public discussion that there was dissension in the party ranks. Partisan philosophical differences emerged over taxation, quality assurance (testing THC levels), free markets, support for small businesses and letting local municipalities set their own rules. The fact that the market being regulated and taxed was marijuana didn’t seem to matter, with legislators generally adopting their party’s standard stance on the relationship between business and government.

Among the more revealing comments came from Rep. Matt Manweller (R, 13th district).

Manweller, a self-identified “free marketer and a Libertarian,” said this marijuana bill was the first time his two central values are at odds with each other. As a free-marketeer, there’s no way he could justify two markets (recreational and medical marijuana) selling the same product, one taxed and the other not. “No rational actor would purchase the taxed product over the non-taxed product,” says Manweller. In that sense, taxing medical marijuana, said Manweller, seemed “absolutely right.”

But as a libertarian, who “likes to leave people alone” imposing a tax on medical marijuana stores was all wrong. They “were here first,” argued Manweller, “they’ve never hurt anyone, and they’ve never hurt themselves; they want to be left alone, and I want to leave them alone.”

Manweller’s debate with himself illuminated his decision making process. Statements from some other legislators helped explain their adherence to or divergence from their party’s position on the issue. But as an anthropologist left waiting outside the caucus room’s clubhouse door, I was left without important information into how these political decisions were made. It reminded me of how much the caucus system’s secret nature, a leftover from a past age, functions in opposition to our notions of open government.

Manweller, after this debate with himself, eventually voted against the amendment to tax medical marijuana.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Price

David Price

David Price is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Society and Social Justice at Saint Martin’s University. He has conducted archaeological and cultural anthropological fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest and Middle East, and studies interactions between anthropologists and military and intelligence agencies. His most recent book is "Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State" (CounterPunch Books 2011).