For a party that espouses secure jobs and full employment, Republicans in the state Senate sure haven’t been sharing the love with Gov. Jay Inslee’s top department heads.
They sacked Inslee’s transportation chief Friday with more stealth and savagery than a Denver Broncos linebacker. About the time they were sending signals that more heads might roll, the prison chief offered his on a platter. How naive of him to believe his resignation would slake the political thirst for blood.
With the Senate majority suddenly brandishing its confirmation power like a blunt instrument, two other Inslee appointees — the directors of the Revenue and Early Learning departments — must have exhaled deeply after they were confirmed unscathed in recent days.
That smell rising in the Olympia air is the smoke of slash-and-burn partisanship during a gubernatorial and legislative election year. That sound is the crash of goodwill thrown out the window during a short legislative session that is supposed to end March 10.
Inslee described the firing of Lynn Peterson, his Department of Transportation secretary, as an ambush. That’s a fair assessment, considering senators gave no advance warning or a chance for Peterson to resign.
Sen. Curtis King, chairman of the Transportation Committee, acknowledged the governor normally would be notified of such a drastic step, but senators wanted to deliver a strong accountability message. King, R-Yakima, told the Yakima Herald-Republic that he felt OK about firing Peterson, though he had “a very sleepless night” before and after.
His insomnia was deserved, because state leaders shouldn’t be in the business of launching Friday-afternoon coups. State history offers no recent examples of ousters so audacious. In fact, there have been no Cabinet-level confirmation rejections in at least two decades.
Even if they don’t care about legislative decorum and fair play, residents should care about the message being sent to outside observers. Imagine a high-demand public-sector manager deciding whether Washington is a good state to work for.
All this ugliness was made possible by Washington’s confirmation process, a check and balance that allows senators to wield influence over the governor and his Cabinet by playing the long game. Peterson led WSDOT for three years before the Senate got around to holding a confirmation vote. Fifteen of Inslee’s key agency leaders await confirmation.
Such gamesmanship isn’t unique to Washington state. Since September, U.S. Senate Republicans have held hostage President Barack Obama’s nomination for Army secretary. Hundreds of Obama administration posts have gone unconfirmed for long stretches during his two terms. But is that the model state leaders want to emulate?
Sen. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler hinted in a phone interview that his caucus might not be done. He said the goal is to make confirmation meaningful, not a rubber stamp for the governor.
“I don’t see any reason to abuse it, but I think we should use it,” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Lawmakers have the right and responsibility to ask hard questions of state administrators. Peterson, who was paid a $168,000 salary to solve problems such as Highway 99 tunnel-project delays and express-lane toll headaches, surely expected scrutiny.
Likewise, elected leaders have a duty to provide oversight to the Department of Corrections. At least with DOC, Republicans are taking a measured approach by waiting for investigations into the early-prisoner-release mess.
Inslee, above all, has a lot to answer for — a mental health crisis and a broken school-funding system, for starters — as he seeks a second term.
But Senate confirmation was created long ago as a safeguard to prevent political patronage, not as a weapon to inflict political damage.
The end game for the GOP, of course, is to win back the governor’s office after three decades, then fill important jobs with appointees they think are highly qualified.
They’d better keep control of the Senate, too, or those jobs might never be secure.