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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Legislators locked in fool’s game of chicken

The problem with games of chicken is that the dumber driver wins.

Whoever is most willing to crash the car wins. Whichever drunken teenager mistakes foolishness for principle carries the day.

Who will win the game of chicken in Olympia? There’s not much question which side is more willing to crash the car. Senate Republicans – getting a feel for their new majority – seem to be doing their best impression of the intractable, immovable U.S. House of Representatives.

Democrats in the Washington House have already shown themselves to be swervy, meanwhile, by compromising on some tax proposals that opponents painted as terrifying.

And yet everything I just asserted – right down to the very DNA of the assumptions and conditions upon which I based the assertions – would be flipped entirely if you heard it from a different perspective. If you heard it from, say, a Senate Republican like Spokane’s Michael Baumgartner.

Baumgartner says he and his party have made acute, painful compromises – giving ground on revenues, accepting Medicaid expansion as part of the despised Obamacare and accepting some spending they don’t like. I look at our recent budgets and see cuts in human services year after year; he looks at the budgets and wonders whether we can even call them cuts. I look at his chamber’s approach this year and see stubborn intractability; he tends to feel the Senate has made difficult concessions and honest attempts at compromise.

These competing worlds – these fundamental differences – are the reasons we end up in special sessions and the reasons why we can’t even agree on why we end up in special sessions. They are also why special sessions should be avoidable – these differences are utterly, entirely predictable.

“We could have been having all these discussions, frankly, in January,” Baumgartner said Tuesday.

Instead, legislators will play chicken a little longer.

A pox on both their houses? There’s surely blame to be shared – there is always blame to be shared – and yet it does seem as if one house deserves a little more pox. Inslee sure thinks so, unsurprisingly. The governor said the second special session is “the inevitable result of a lack of substantive compromise by the Senate majority.”

Inslee argued that Democrats and the House have made major compromises, cutting $771 million in proposed taxation – including the elimination of a modest tax extension on businesses that caused the usual freakout – and keeping certain pet issues such as gun control off the table in the interest of achieving a deal.

The Senate, meanwhile, “went to the edges, not to the middle,” he said.

Of course, this view is the precise opposite of those expressed by the Senate and by Republicans – who view themselves as models of compromise who have done everything in their power to work with a truculent, unbending House. Baumgartner said it’s disingenuous for Inslee to lay the blame on the Senate, whose members have had to swallow some pills they don’t much like and to give up on certain reforms they consider vital.

And yet, the truth is that you can wind around this pole forever, trading examples back and forth of who is to blame. There’ll be more than a little of that, surely, before a budget deal is reached. And that will happen, undoubtedly, right before time runs out, because that’s when it always happens.

Special sessions are no longer special. Even second special sessions are no longer special. Since the current legislative calendar was set in 1980, there have been more special sessions than regular ones – 32 regular sessions and 41 special, counting the current one.

All these failures have created new expectations among legislators and contributed to public cynicism. It is now the rule, rather than the exception, that these sessions will go to extra innings. But they go there based on wholly foreseeable forces and dynamics.

This historical pattern cannot be blamed on the Senate or Republicans; if they deserve more of the pox this year, as I believe they do, they certainly don’t bear the blame for the entire run of specialness, which has occurred under far more Democratic majorities.

Buzzer-beater budgets are just the way we do it now. Desperate crisis-avoidance has replaced statesmanship; games of chicken have replaced compromise.

And chicken is a game that the smartest drivers never play.

Reach Shawn Vestal at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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