Hope for a new state senate

Politics is semantic. One partisan’s palace coup is another’s collaborative solution to an uncertain majority. As George Orwell wrote, “Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Monday’s state senate leadership swing illustrates the trouble with language and the challenge of a razor-thin governing majority. Two conservative Democratic state senators, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, crossed the aisle and forged a leadership deal with minority Republicans. Rather than establish a Republican majority, however, Tom and Sheldon won’t eschew their party label. They want to remain Democrats but cede political power to Republicans. (Note: Tom and Sheldon might skip the next Democratic rubber-chicken dinner.)

The new “Majority Coalition Caucus” sounds like an antidote to partisan inertia. A majority is (little d) democratic and “coalition” telegraphs war’s good guys (“Coalition forces hammered the Taliban.”) Ideally, a label informs a governing style and a focus on outcomes benefitting everyone. But as Orwell warned, de-fanging partisan language doesn’t de-fang partisans.

The divided-power approach is unprecedented, said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, with six committee chairs going to the Democrats, six to Republicans, and three co-chaired by members of both parties. The Republicans snare the better committees, including Ways and Means and Early Learning and K-12 Education. The move foreshadows a no-taxes senate budget and a reform-oriented education agenda with Sen. Steve Litzow elbowing out Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe as education chair. The one-member margin for each committee also demands an uneasy consensus.

“The surest path to more reforms and a sustainable budget next year is for us to work as a bipartisan coalition from the get-go, investing the time up front to get it right,” Sheldon said.

One obstacle is the proposed chairmanship of the senior member of the Republican Caucus, Sen. Pam Roach. Because of behavioral problems (!) Roach, teed up to chair the Government Operations Committee, is prohibited from interacting with senate staff. Roach navigating a committee chairmanship without talking to staff members — while amusing to imagine — diminishes the committee’s mission and, by extension, the majority-coalition caucus. The Roach matter will need to be resolved. And there’s also the challenge of fence mending.

“This ‘majority coalition’ power grab has nothing to do with cooperation or bi-partisanship — if it did it would have been negotiated as the Democratic leadership had suggested it should be,” Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, said. “We value getting results over getting our own way. We’re committed to addressing education and job creation, and we’ll work toward those goals regardless of the Senate’s structure.”

The new governing experiment is intriguing, but outcomes are the true measure. With committee chairs buttering both parties, there will be plenty of praise or blame to spread come spring.

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