OLYMPIA – To hear supporters tell it, a new power-sharing coalition in the state Senate could usher in a Legislative session of compromise and moderation, with a positive response to Rodney King’s famous question: Can’t we all just get along?
Forgive a professional skeptic, but it’s more likely to be best described by the title of a famous 1934 speech by Huey Long: Every man a king.
That’s not to suggest the 23 Republicans and two Democrats who last week announced a “coalition majority” will push for the Louisiana populist’s platform of wealth redistribution. Far from it.
Rather, they have set up a scenario where any controversial piece of legislation could be held hostage by any senator at any time. Any defection turns the coalition’s 25-24 majority into a 24-25 minority, so the temptation to horse trade and threaten to bolt if one’s request is rejected could be great.
A brief recap for those not given to nightly visits by the ghosts of legislative sessions yet to come: After the Nov. 6 election, Democrats held 26 seats in the 2013 Senate to the Republicans’ 23 seats. That was down one seat from this year and precariously below 2010, when they were up 31 to 18. But in a body where those with the most votes run much of the show, Democrats went about electing a majority leader and naming chairmen and chairwomen of 15 committees.
Then two Democrats, Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, and Rodney Tom, of Bellevue, said they’d vote with the Republicans to form a coalition and name different leaders and committee chairmen. They would do this, they said, without actually dropping out of the Democratic Caucus, although they may want to consider wearing suits of armor or bringing body guards to future caucus meetings.
Some editorial pages could hardly contain their enthusiasm for delivering the state from something voters had wrought: one-party control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. (Surely, the fact that most of them had backed the losing candidate for governor had nothing to do with this enthusiasm.)
“An antidote to partisan inertia,” said the Everett Herald. “A much-needed counterweight” to Democratic control of state government, said the Tacoma News Tribune. “A promising experiment,” said the Seattle Times. “A potential for governing from the middle,” said The Spokesman-Review.
Some particularly liked the coalition’s statement of principles like promoting job growth, a sustainable budget and a “world-class education system through reforms and enhancements” – all of it without raising taxes.
But the Democrat who was going to head the Senate budget committee, Jim Hargrove, of Hoquiam, wasn’t going to propose a tax increase either. Unless the state Supreme Court eviscerates the voter-approved statute requiring a two-thirds majority on tax votes, the Senate doesn’t need 25 stout-hearted men and women to block taxes. It only needs 17.
The potential pitfalls of the coalition are great. Veteran legislators of both parties who served through 49-49 splits in the House and 25-24 configurations in the Senate point out the obvious mathematical challenges of holding a majority. And that’s under the best of circumstances, when they are all part of the same politically connected caucus.
What the Senate will have next session is three caucuses: a 24-member Democratic Caucus, a 23-member Republican Caucus, and a two-member caucus of Tom and Sheldon. Those two are different enough politically – Tom is usually described as socially moderate and fiscally conservative, while Sheldon is socially and fiscally conservative – that some suggest they will each be their own caucus.
Forget about such perennial liberal issues as a state income tax or an end to the death penalty getting much attention. But social conservatives hoping for years to knock Democrats out of control of one chamber may get little or nothing, either. If the coalition’s concentration on budgets, education and jobs wasn’t enough to push social issues to the back burner, its ephemeral majority could result in a few more committee hearings on their issues but no floor votes.
None of this is to suggest a personal criticism of the attempt at a historic coalition majority. It may create chaos in the beginning, but chaos is interesting and often results in overtime on the paycheck. If coalition members are right about finding workable solutions for the state and end the session on time – for the first time since 2008 – that would be fine, too.
But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath on that.