What is the purpose of the power the voters have given to the men and women who represent them in Olympia? Is it to stifle debate, stomp partisan opponents and make back-room deals out of public view?
No, but that is the style of politics the Legislature’s Republican leaders have practiced this year.
What a disappointment.
Some of us had hoped that along with their fresh new ideas the Republicans, who have had so much to say about clean-cut values, might bring to politics a fresh new style. Open. Collaborative. Small-d democratic.
In the aftermath of his party’s triumph in the 1994 elections, Clyde Ballard became speaker of the House of Representatives and announced a new policy of openness. Conference committees, where the most important decisions are debated and made, would meet in public, he said.
As a result, the people of Washington were able to see more of their government’s inner workings than they had seen in years.
They must have liked what they saw, because in last fall’s elections Republicans won control of the Senate as well.
But Senate leaders find open government awkward. (What do they have to hide? Most states require legislative conference committees to meet in public. And even the laws of Washington state require other legislative bodies, from city councils to school boards, to work in public.)
So, this year the Legislature is doing its crucial business in back rooms and dark corners of the Capitol’s corridors. Conference committees meet mostly for show if they meet at all. Some big issues, such as welfare reform, received few if any public hearings.
This is dangerous. Decisions that affect people all over the state can do real harm if they are based on arm-twisting and horse-trading rather than information-sharing, reason and public debate.
In healthy negotiations, all the players are at the table or at least are able to listen. In back-room power-broking, a few partisan insiders circumvent the balanced, orderly processes of representative democracy.
The result? Miscommunication. Parliamentary games. Vetoes. Delays. And, as we may discover in months to come, bad law. No party, no region and no handful of politicians has a monopoly on wisdom.
Politicians who begin to think that power belongs to them and their party, rather than to the people who grant it, are asking for trouble. They aren’t demonstrating one party’s superiority over another. They are at risk of proving a point that ought to be familiar: Power corrupts.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board
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