Arrow-right Camera


Spin Control: Clearing the brush on what’s bipartisan

Sun., March 17, 2013

OLYMPIA – As the Legislature passed a key deadline last week, the “bi” word was thrown around quite a bit. Bipartisan.

The problem was that bipartisan seems to mean different things to different people. For the 23 Republicans and two disaffected Democrats running the Senate, bipartisanship seems to be defined by the number of bills sponsored by members of the 24 minority Democrats that passed the chamber.

Of the 276 nonbudgetary bills the Senate managed to pass, 88 – 32 percent – were sponsored by minority Democrats. A clear sign of bipartisanship, majority leaders said. In the numbers games that often consume the middle of a legislative session, these figures initially seem impressive on a couple of levels.

First, 276 bills is more than usually manage to work their way through the minefield of obstacles designed to winnow out the vast majority of great ideas that spring from the minds of legislators.

A person too hidebound to numbers and ratios might argue that since minority Democrats make up 49 percent of the Senate, true bipartisanship would suggest they’d sponsor around 49 percent of the passing bills. Someone subscribing to the theory that the majority can and should do as it pleases might counter that anything above zero percent is a gift.

Republicans who are in a more distinct minority in the House of Representatives professed to be green with envy whenever their friends in the other chamber broached the topic of minorities passing bills. So envious one might have thought no GOP bills escaped the iron-fisted leadership of Speaker Frank Chopp. In fact, 60 of the 365 nonbudgetary bills that passed the House had Republican prime sponsors. For those keeping score at home, that’s about 16 percent, or half the passage rate of Senate Democrats.

A closer look at the 88 successful Senate bills sponsored by Democrats reveals they could have been proposed by almost anyone and passed. The vast majority sailed through with, at best, token resistance. Many had Republican co-sponsors. The chamber requires 25 votes to pass, and only five went through with fewer than 40 yes votes; only two could be considered close with fewer than 30 yes votes.

The bulk include such controversial topics as coming up with new groups deserving special license plates, cracking down on child abuse and sex trafficking, doing more to boost the holy grails of education – science, technology, engineering and math – or allowing folks to get a drink of something stronger than soda at a day spa or a movie.

To be clear, the vast majority of the majority coalition’s nonbudgetary bills also moved through the Senate with 40 or more votes. There’s a truth about the Legislature that we perfidious reporters rarely tell you: Most bills that pass the Legislature do so with huge majorities. We hide this from you by focusing mainly on controversial, tight votes, just as we generally ignore the bazillions of planes that land safely while writing reams about the few that crash.

When comparing Senate bills that survived truly close votes – passing with fewer than 30 votes and maybe in doubt at some point in the process – majority Republicans overwhelmingly had the edge, sponsoring 20 of the 22. They contain some ideas business groups love and organized labor hates, like changes to injured worker settlement rules as well as prevailing wage and minimum wage laws.

It is on these bills that the Senate majority coalition must now make the case to House Democrats that they are truly bipartisan ideas, on the strength of a few votes from minority Democrats in the Senate rather than those cushy 49-0 vote counts.

Good luck with that.

A vote that wasn’t, but could be later

The House came to a standstill for much of two days before not voting on a bill that would have required background checks on private gun sales. The bill is dead legislatively, but it may not be politically.

The issue could be resurrected as an initiative, and – if that attracts enough well-heeled donors who can buy signatures this spring – make it to the November ballot.

The sole House Republican willing to vote for universal background checks, Mike Hope of Lake Stevens, said he tried unsuccessfully to generate support for the bill with a warning that an initiative could be much worse. It could propose a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, high-capacity magazines or other restrictions gun rights advocates dislike.

That could make recent ballot campaigns on same-sex marriage and legalized pot seem tame by comparison.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol.

Click here to comment on this story »