Distaste for debate is ominous message from House

Mar 11, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Maybe this is the sort of thought that occurs when you’ve been at the statehouse for the last 23 sessions, like I have, and you’ve seen just about everything. But over the last week the state House and Senate have been rolling out this year’s biggest policy bills – and I wonder if I was the only one who noticed the contrast.

In the Senate we saw wild and freewheeling debates on transportation and energy. The first one ended with what I would call a victory for bipartisanship and the kind of compromise that makes our system work. Members of both parties came together on the central bill of the transportation package, 27-22. Some of us think it’s the best package in years, others admit misgivings, but the important thing is that we passed a package of vital importance to the state.

The energy debate was even more raucous. On one of the most important bills of the session, four Democrats voted with the majority of our caucus, and two of our members voted no. But I think everyone understood this was an attempt to resolve one of the state’s longest-running problems — a seriously flawed green-energy policy, passed by initiative, which will drive up electric bills, hasn’t fulfilled overblown promises to clean up the environment and might even might make things worse. The Senate vote was the first time in the history of the Legislature that either chamber has passed a practical carbon-reduction plan.

Solving the state’s problems? Debating things in the open? I think that’s a good use of our time. But over in the House, where the other team holds sway, the keynote bill was a curious choice. It was a purely partisan measure that raises the state minimum wage, already the highest in the country, to $12 an hour. A high minimum wage, so popular with liberal interests in urban areas, has always been a big problem for rural districts, small cities and border communities.

Now, there are some who think the high cost of living in the Seattle area is a vital problem for the state, and government ought to do something about it. I think the rest of us have a better understanding of the free-market system and its ability to adjust for problems, when there really are problems. We also worry about what this will do to the small businesses that create most jobs in this state. So in the House, Republicans offered a dozen amendments to mitigate the damage.

And this is the part that bothers me. House Democratic leaders used an unusual parliamentary tactic to squelch debate, declaring nine amendments out of order during the course of 20 minutes. Many of us suspect it was to keep Democratic members from voting for them. In the end Democratic leadership enforced lock-step discipline, passing the bill along strict party lines, 51-46. It was a form of tyranny that never would be acceptable in the Senate.

Outside the Legislature these process issues might seem a little arcane – what counts is what we accomplish. But I think we get a better result when we allow people to express themselves and encourage a spirit of intellectual openness. Our majority in the Senate is as slim as the other team’s majority in the House. It’s just that in the Senate sometimes the other team wins on an amendment or a procedural motion. When things don’t move in lock-step, I think you can have a little more faith in the result.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is majority leader of the Washington Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.