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Culture trumps strategy, or why legislators failed to learn from the mistakes of Congress

Sometimes, you have to jam something through the legislature.

Sometimes you can’t wait to let stakeholders get too engaged, too organized and too mobilized to oppose or edit legislation.

Sometimes, legislation is so politically toxic, or so complicated with legalese, that leadership decides that in order to get a bill passed, that they have to move quickly to pass a bill without room for members or stakeholders to “muck” around in the policy weeds.

We saw that in health care from the Congressional Republicans in Washington DC.  They kept the ACA repeal bill in a “secret room” that only a few members were allowed to see.  Then, the bill was marked up, “heard” and passed out of committee after an all night session.  It was run through the House only a few days later. It was all done in a week.

Then, when the US Senate took up the bill, there wasn’t a majority for the House legislation.  It stalled, and ultimately, no working majority has ever taken shape in Congress for a repeal bill.

Olympia learned the lesson.

Last week’s bill that limited transparency in the legislature was shot through both chambers in a manner that would make Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell envious.  It took about 56 hours from introduction to passage.

Now, there may be good reasons to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  And, there may be reasons to repeal the Supreme Court’s ruling requiring the legislature operate like every other state agency (save the courts, of course).

But, jamming through legislation – whether it’s in DC or in Olympia – is seldom a way to make good policy.  It’s a way to get a bill passed, sure.  But when the US Senate stopped and took a look at the repeal bill, questions about the policy sank the initiative.

If legislators had taken the time to think through the policy implications of the transparency bill launched last week, they may have come up with questions, too. Instead, they let a process purposely meant to stifle debate and input drive their hand on legislation.

Sen. Sam Hunt, chair of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee, put it this way as the bill worked through his committee.

“We’re learning about it as we go along, too.  None of us had a hand in writing this.”

Again, there may be good policy reasons for this legislation, but the process was a strategic failure for a primary reason that legislators overlooked.

Culture always trumps strategy.

And, in Washington State, there is a political culture of transparency and good government.  The PDC always gets high marks.  Our legislators generally take responsibility for missteps.  The Open Public Records Act is a pillar of how our state politics work.

People in Washington State are proud of that. It’s a central part of what it means to live in this state, one built upon a “hands-off-my-guns-and-hands-off-my-body” libertarianism and a Scandinavian progressivity that has a deeply conservative “live-and-let-live” nature to it.

There are few ways to bring together both this libertarian culture and the Scandinavian culture than by subverting an open, transparent process that allows all voices to be heard.

These cultures may not really care, at the end of the day, about whether this transparency bill really passes.  But they care deeply that the process is open, fair, and includes all voices.

Had the process worked through the normal system of full hearings, committee votes, stakeholder input, and floor action, and with a normal multi-week timeline, perhaps the ire that the legislature has called upon itself wouldn’t be taking shape.

Instead, in their rush, media of all types are hitting on the legislature with a deep sense of violation of our basic Cascadian principles:  that if you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to hide anything.

Some legislators argue that their correspondence should be kept private for security or collaborative reasons.

Great:  make the case in public through the normal legislative process.

Some argue that indeed the Supreme Court is exempt from the transparency measures.

Great:  make the case in public through the normal legislative process.

But, that’s not what happened.  The legislature jammed itself, running a bill through that hadn’t been fully vetted, and which was not open for stakeholder input. What happened violated the basic culture of Cascadia, leaving an indelible imprint on the voters about this session.

This was a strategic misstep of the first order.

It has mobilized all of the state’s media that will continue to call for the repeal of this legislation in coming endorsement interviews for months and perhaps years to come.

This will be an issue in the 2020 gubernatorial election because the media will make it so (and Bob Ferguson and Dow Constantine are on the right side of this issue).  It will be an issue in the race for Attorney General (sorry, Sen. Pedersen, but this was really your baby, right?).

It’s going to be a stain on an otherwise reasonably productive session.