House Democrats muzzle Republicans, free speech

  • Richard S. Davis / Syndicated Columnist
  • Tuesday, February 28, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

“Politics ain’t beanbag.” But some sensitive folks in Olympia seem bent on making it so.

Things have gotten so rough down there that the chief clerk of the state House of Representatives had to give members a “time out” last week. He put a brief moratorium on press releases, reviewed electronic publications and took out all of the mean words.

No more can members slap each other about. No fair calling a political tactic “disingenuous.” Saying “tax-and-spend liberals” is off limits. Don’t warn constituents of a budget “shell game.” And never say you think the other side displayed a “lack of honesty with taxpayers.”

Those are hurting words. I’m reminded of the busybodies in “The Music Man,” nattering about the librarian who reads Balzac. Shocking. Disrespectful.

I like civility as much as anyone. But I like free speech more. And it’s, well, “disingenuous” – Encarta’s definition: “not genuinely sincere” – to act as if this censorship doesn’t benefit the majority party.

For example, when the House Democrats unveiled their budget last week, their press release boasted that they “offered new support to schools and the elderly, incentives to business and agriculture, and stability for the next budget cycle.” As you might suspect, they mixed fact and spin. They boosted spending and scattered some tax breaks, sure enough, but greatly overstated the budget’s stability for the next session. Most objective analysts predict a shortfall in two years. And it’s the task of the minority party to point that out.

Rich Nafziger, the clerk cum censor, told The Olympian, “you can’t use taxpayers dollars to sling mud.” None of the censored phrases comes close to mudslinging.

He cites a resolution passed in 1998 applying House rules of decorum to publications. They must be “respectful of other legislators and the legislative process” and ” … not impute or impugn motives.” Yet, “debate of legislative issues necessarily involves criticism of views.” Nafziger says the rules have been applied consistently over the years, and both parties have been affected.

Still, he says, “It is like nailing down Jell-O on many occasions to try and determine if something is consistent with House rules.”

Protocols on the floor of the House govern how lawmakers speak to each other. But it was a mistake to allow staffers to red pencil communications between lawmakers and the public.

The political dynamics guarantee that the rule works against the minority.

The majority party runs the show, controlling the legislative process and deciding what bills live or die. It’s their job to sell their agenda to the public. They’re in the praise business.

That’s not the role of the minority; they’re critics. Guess which side will more often be accused of mudslinging? It’s pretty easy to interpret an ambiguous rule in ways that make it harder for the minority party to do its job. You say tomayto, I say tomahto. You say be respectful; I say you mean be quiet. This isn’t trivial.

Sometimes, things get heated. House Republican leadership has been unusually aggressive this year. Some of the tactics have been a bit over the top, like the attempt to force a vote on sex offender legislation at the start of the session. Democrats said hold off, we’ll do hearings and pass something later. They did. But Republicans won a chance to grandstand and paint the Democrats as “soft” on an emotional issue.

The history of American politics is full of rough play. Peter Finley Dunne coined the “politics ain’t beanbag” line in the late 19th century, when politicians played hardball.

In the nice Northwest, vigorous and personal challenges often make us uncomfortable. The majority claims to want civility, when what it really wants is approval – vocal if possible, tacit if not. Once, good manners kept us from discussing religion or politics over dinner. Now, it’s OK. But it is very bad manners to disagree with the presumed consensus.

From our politicians, we expect straight talk and accountability. If my representatives think something’s wrong, I expect to read about it in their press releases and newsletters. Sure, they can make their points elsewhere, but they shouldn’t have to. Legislators should be able to speak their minds without censorship. Anything less would be disrespectful.

Richard S. Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, writes every other Wednesday. His columns do not necessarily reflect the views of the council. Write Davis at or Washington Research Council, 108 S. Washington St., Suite 406, Seattle, WA 98104-3408.

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