OLYMPIA – For about 30 minutes last week, the Senate rang with debate on an issue at the very heart of our democratic republic.
The resolution at hand was a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to come up with a two-thirds supermajority to enact tax increases. But the underlying issue, and much of the argument, involved something more basic:
When we elect someone to Congress, the Legislature or the City Council, do we send them there to represent us or do we send them to exercise their best judgment?
You might say both, believing that by representing you, said officeholder obviously represents the vast majority of the district AND exercises the best judgment. The problem is that a legislator has about 137,200 of you to represent, with at least 137,200 best judgments.
In the supermajority-for-taxes debate, supporters leaned hard on representation. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, produced a map of the state’s 49 legislative districts showing the results of the most recent initiative attempting to codify that higher standard for tax votes. As she often does, Roach delighted in telling senators who opposed her amendment how their district voted, exhorting them to respect the “will of the people.”
Opposing Democrats pushed judgment and were quick to remind the amendment’s predominantly Republican supporters of times when they have ignored that will on other issues such as teacher raises or the inflation-adjusted minimum wage.
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said leadership doesn’t always consist of giving people what they want, but sometimes of “saying no, for their own good.” That may sound a bit parental, he admitted, but sometimes legislators have to act like they know better.
The verbal sparring was purely academic; the fate of the amendment was never in doubt. Whether appropriate or ironic, it fell far short of the two-thirds majority such a measure needs in the Legislature.
But the debate featured the “give the people what they want” brand of populism that crops up regularly in today’s political climate.
One state representative was lobbied by constituents angry about the tax breaks Boeing got last fall to build its next jetliner in the state; they argued business tax rates should be equal for everyone. So this year he introduced a bill to do just that. Problem was that actually would have increased taxes for farmers, who were among those most angry about Boeing, and leave a significant hole in the budget. The bill was killed in committee, with even the sponsor saying it was a bad idea.
Another representative was contacted by folks concerned about all the money the state spends on art for road and bridge projects, so he introduced a bill to only spend state transportation funds on actual transportation projects. Turns out the state spends no transportation funds for such projects, other than some textured concrete for some road barriers and bridge facings. The bill died in committee.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers engaged in this brand of populism with her “Bette in Spokane” anecdote in the response to the State of the Union speech. Bette had contacted the congresswoman’s office to complain when her insurance company dropped the policy she had and liked, and offered her other, more expensive ones. Bette doesn’t want to use the “Obama website” to shop for other policies, so she and her husband are doing without.
That’s their right, of course, and in an era when anecdotes carry more weight than data, McMorris Rodgers may have been within her rhetorical rights to offer up Bette as an example of how the president’s promise of “if you like your insurance you can keep your insurance” was broken.
There was a time when a representative’s office would have also explained in some detail the other ways to shop for a health insurance besides using the website, passed along some phone numbers or hooked Bette up with someone familiar with her options. Bette might’ve still said “forget it,” or she might’ve found a policy and a price she liked.
McMorris Rodgers’ office said they’ve heard from hundreds of people concerned about Obamacare. Bringing up Bette represented them, but what about the thousands in her district that state data shows have signed up for health coverage?
Elected officials used to do more than regurgitate their constituents’ bile. They helped solve problems and explain programs even if they didn’t like them. If an angry taxpayer called to say “there ought to be a law,” a little research was done to see if one really ought to be drafted. If not, the taxpayer got a call back with an explanation.