Open, visible government is vital to the democratic process, but that doesn’t mean it’s pretty to watch.
And as political theater goes, the Washington Legislature’s extended performance in Olympia this year was decidedly short on aesthetic merit.
Despite control of both House and Senate – as well as the governorship – majority Democrats differed among themselves so much over the dominant budgetary questions at stake that they squandered the opportunity to be direction-setters. Meanwhile, minority Republicans, freed from the responsibility of being thoughtful contributors to the process, confined themselves mostly to voting no and offering told-you-so denunciations for past mistakes.
Indeed, the state suffers from an unsustainable budgetary structure, but dwelling on the previous bad decisions that led to it served no constructive purpose in addressing a $2.8 billion revenue shortfall that afflicts the state now.
Chances are, if Gov. Chris Gregoire hadn’t threatened 20 percent across-the-board cuts, the lawmakers wouldn’t have reached agreement on the package that ultimately sent them home. It wasn’t a package anyone embraced, but it was a pragmatic mix of concessions that included some judicious tax hikes and some selective program trimming.
Yes, the challenges were great, but no, the combined regular and special sessions should not have lasted as long as they did. Both within and between the parties there should have been more willingness to strike compromises.
And there should have been less cajoling and more honest recognition that although they prefer different paths, all the state’s legislators are trying to find their way to what’s best for the people of Washington.
For now, the curtain has been drawn, but in just nine months the next Legislature will be back in session to face another sizeable fiscal problem, perhaps $2 billion or more. Its task, again, will be to control the cost of government and to make the delivery of services more efficient.
Between now and then, however, all the House seats and half the Senate ones will be up for election. The campaign that unfolds this summer and fall will give candidates, especially incumbents, a chance to redeem themselves for the flawed performance of 2010.
We’re hoping for a campaign that articulates ideological values while respecting difference of opinion. One that honors rather than disparages politics as a process for molding public policy. And one distinguished by a willingness to seek compromise when the varied interests of a diverse state require it.