If the term “transparency” is getting a little shopworn in political parlance, maybe that’s because it’s heard so much yet demonstrated too little.
The Washington Legislature could reverse that pattern, but indications from Olympia aren’t promising. Senate Bill 5419 would make it harder for lawmakers to rush measures through the process before the public – and even other members – know what’s happening. But the proposal has run into a dead end in the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Tribal Relations and Elections, where Chairman Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, has decided to bottle it up.
It’s true that House and Senate rules already impose intermittent waiting periods that require a specified time between, for example, a bill’s introduction and a committee hearing on it. The idea is to make sure proposed law can be examined and studied by those it would affect. Citizens – including Eastern Washingtonians who live hundreds of miles and hours of travel time from Olympia – deserve an opportunity to be heard.
But it’s easier to maneuver around rules than laws, and legislative veterans are skilled at fast-tracking proposals when they’d prefer not to explain them and don’t really want public feedback.
In a glaring example last March, an income tax measure was rushed through the process so hastily that Senate Ways and Means Committee members hadn’t seen it until the meeting started. Even the sponsor, then-Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, whose original bill was being replaced by brand new language, was caught by surprise.
When Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the committee, protested that the action violated Senate rules, Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, rejected his complaint with the preposterous rationale that delaying consideration of the measure would deprive the public of a chance to comment.
The only thing that prevented the public from commenting on the measure was the rush job it received. The public didn’t know about it, had no forewarning of it, no chance to read or evaluate its content and was in no position to offer testimony. As Franklin recalls the situation, she was the only person to testify, even though the substitute language was not the same income tax proposal she had been advocating for several years.
Senate Bill 5419 is a modest proposal, calling for waiting periods significantly shorter than some reformers would prefer. Squelching it hinders public participation in the democratic process.
The growing rumble of distrust that manifested itself in last fall’s tea party movement draws its energy from such arrogance. If lawmakers want to earn back the public’s confidence, they need to act like the representatives our system of government expects them to be.