Peter Callaghan: In a highly partisan world, nonpartisan information is vital

Staff WriterNovember 26, 2013 

So a couple of state Senate staffers are told they won’t have jobs by the end of the year. Big deal, right?

Those with the majority make the rules and the Majority Coalition Caucus of 23 Republicans and two Democrats decided the pair who lead the nonpartisan office of Senate Committee Services should go.

That, at least, is the narrative crafted by the leaders of the Senate, especially Sen. Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads the majority caucus.

Democrats complained about the dismissals – both how they were done and why they were done. Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, claimed the pair were being punished for refusing to hire a partisan staffer who wasn’t qualified for committee staff work. They were pushed out for protecting the integrity of the committees.

But her complaints amount to using private staffing decisions for partisan gain, Tom claimed in a letter to Democratic leaders quoted on WashingtonStateWire.com. He even suggested that he and the other members of the ruling caucus are the protectors of employees by trying to keep the dismissal hush-hush and that Democrats violated their privacy by calling it out.

I understand that all of this is lost on regular folks with real jobs and real lives. Some of them have a negative view of all things political and figure this is routine. Others think of it as inside baseball, if they think of it at all.

But staffing legislative committees with nonpartisan professionals – lawyers, budget and revenue analysts, researchers – is a good-government reform. Each of the four partisan caucuses hire their own partisan staffers, but the committee staffers work with members of both parties, with chairmen of both parties. For 40 years, the nonpartisan staff of Senate Committee Services and the House’s Office of Program Research remained mostly in place regardless of which party won the election.

“In essence, staff keep the legislative vehicle tuned and in good running condition so legislators need only get behind the wheel and drive it in the direction they, and the voters, determine,” wrote former Senate committee staff director Edward Seeberger in his guide to the Legislature “Sine Die.”

Washington state has a higher percentage of its legislative staff in the nonpartisan category than Congress or most states. This is a good thing, even for those who don’t often think about how the Legislature works.

Nonpartisan staffers do not make policy, they do not work on campaigns, they do not broadcast their politics or their opinions. Instead, they immerse themselves in budgeting, health care, the court system, workers’ compensation, prisons and mental health. When the elected legislators want a bill to accomplish some change in policy, the committee staff makes sure it does what is intended. Committee staff also make sure the electeds are aware of what other states are doing, what the feds are doing, what has worked elsewhere and what has failed.

If they also must pass a political litmus test, if the committee staff turns over each time partisan control changes, then the Legislature becomes less effective. The glare of politics would blind policymaking. The truth does not lie halfway between two untruths, but without nonpartisan staffers as fact-finders, that is what many legislative debates would become.

Tom claims that he can’t talk about the matter because it is a personnel issue. But such rules are meant to protect the employees, not the bosses, and the majority caucus shouldn’t use them to prevent scrutiny of a decision to undo four decades of legislative reform.

If there was a real reason for the change, not a partisan reason, it should have been taken to a bipartisan employment committee controlled by the MCC. The Democrats on the bipartisan employment committee likely would have gone along and Tom would have had the secrecy he craves.

How unusual is dumping the leaders of nonpartisan staff for apparently partisan reasons? So unusual that the last time anything similar happened was in 1982.

“In the same time frame, the longtime nonpartisan Senate staff director was fired under intense pressure from one Republican senator,” wrote Don Brazier in his “History of the Washington Legislature.” “These actions did nothing to ease an already tense atmosphere throughout the Legislature.”

Sounds familiar.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com
@CallaghanPeter

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