Washington lawmakers opened their, ahem, 60-day session (please hold your eye-rolls for now) this week with ritual flourishes, earnest expressions of bipartisanship and nothing that resembles a clean slate.
Their unfinished work from 2017 includes joining hands for one last billion-dollar dance over Supreme Court-ordered K-12 school funding. They also must find a way to release a $4 billion capital budget, tied up since last summer after being unnaturally conjoined to a water-rights dispute. And somehow, they’ll have to escape Olympia with enough time to try to win reelection.
Their best chance of pulling it off is by following a clear set of rules. Legislators must be given space to carry out the people’s business efficiently. But they also must give deference to the public’s right to know how it’s being carried out.
The last thing we need is a repeat of 2017, when leaders wrangled for a record six months and three special sessions, only to ram through a budget deal at the end — a complex property tax shift that most legislators had no time to digest, and the public had no chance to review.
Democrats, having now taken charge of the Senate by a single seat, changed some rules for the 2018 session on Monday. While we’re glad to see them learn from last year’s missteps, the new rules have too many loopholes.
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Every democratic institution needs rules; preserving order and etiquette has hinged on them at least since the dawn of the American experiment, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson spelled out rules of Senate conduct in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice.
Jefferson’s rule book, for example, banned senators from disrupting colleagues’ floor speeches “by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.” Some 220 years later, such mischief is still forbidden, though the Washington Senate calls it “indecorous conduct, boisterous or unbecoming language.”
Today’s legislative rules must also account for distractions our founders never imagined — cell phones. Until this year, the Senate banned their use during floor sessions and committee hearings. Tweeting hands and scrolling fingers were considered a breach of decorum.
Democrats are taking a more permissive view in 2018. Mobile devices are now OK as long as they’re kept on silent mode and used in a way that respects fellow members and the public.
So the same month that our state cracks down on distracted driving, it eases up on distracted lawmaking? Alrighty then.
The other rule changes are more noteworthy and encouraging. They’re designed to increase transparency and allow more input from rank-and-file lawmakers and the public before the Legislature makes its biggest decisions this year, including approving supplemental budgets.
A 24-hour waiting period will now be in effect between the time a budget agreement arrives in the Senate and when the final floor vote is held. Likewise, an 18-hour notice will apply when senators want to introduce budget amendments on the floor.
Unfortunately, there are exceptions that could set the table for another midnight hash filled with mystery ingredients, just like last year.
The rule doesn’t apply to budget bills that emerge from conference negotiations between the House and Senate. The rule also may be suspended within three days of the end of the session.
Those are some uncomfortably large loopholes, and Senate leaders should close them.
What Thomas Jefferson (yes, him again) said about federal spending in 1802 could just as well be said about our state budget today:
“We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books,” the new president wrote, “so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”