Every year, good bills that could help fix some of the state’s big problems die on the vine. And every year, in many cases, the Democrats who control the whole of state government offer the same excuse: “Sorry, we ran outta time,” they say, before winking and pointing a finger across the aisle.
Like a lot of excuses, that one is bullshit. In Olympia, the majority is Chronos. They’re the titan-god of time. And they should act like it—at least a little more than they have been. But they won’t.
Republicans Will Keep Throwing Fits to Waste Time, and the Dems Will Let Them
In a state where the Constitution limits the number of days the Legislature can do its business, it’s true that time is limited. And it’s true that the minority party takes full advantage of that limitation. After all, the more time the Republican minority spends talking about bills during the session, the less time the Democratic majority spends passing them. The threat of wasting time also allows the GOP to extract policy concessions on legislation in exchange for less obstruction, resulting in watered-down bills.
Last year, for instance, House Republicans filibustered a bill to protect workers from injuries associated with repetitive movements. After a floor “debate” where the GOP repeated arguments ad nauseam into the wee hours of the morning, the bill finally passed, but it ended up dying in the Senate—adding insult to injury.
Republicans ran the same play on a critical climate and housing bill. They ran the same play on the budget. And they’ll probably run the same play on every Democratic priority bill this year—from banning assault weapons to protecting abortion.
In a phone interview, House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon said Republican time-wasting has “gotten worse” during the 11 years he’s served in Olympia. “The 2022 session in particular was the most egregious abuse of the prerogative to have every Republican speak on an amendment and then all to speak on a bill,” he said.
And yet, Democrats refuse to do anything to stop them.
On Monday, Dems in the House and in the Senate approved rules packages that will allow Republicans to kill time in the same ways they’ve been killing time for the last several years. Fitzgibbon said that dynamic could change if the GOP repeats the “bad behavior” they exhibited in 2022. Senate Democrats aren’t even going that far, though they’d have the option.
Current and former leaders in both chambers offer compelling arguments for not going nuclear on the rules to push through the Democratic agenda—an agenda Washingtonians tacitly approved when they increased the party’s majorities in both chambers during a supposed “red wave” year.
Those arguments make sense if you think Democrats should focus their efforts on maintaining their majorities instead of using them to pass legislation substantial enough to actually solve the state’s problems. They also make sense if you genuinely respect the Legislature’s core values of debate and deliberation. But if you do not, then they do not.
Legislative rule-making isn’t the kind of issue that drives people to the streets with picket signs, but it’s worth reviewing because the rules control time, and, in Olympia, the clock is always ticking.
As I mentioned earlier, the state Constitution imposes the biggest time constraint. For noble but dumb reasons, the delegates who drafted the document decided the Legislature should only meet for alternating 60- and 105-day sessions.
Within those days, lawmakers choose to give themselves six weeks to consider bills in committees, where they winnow down the typical number of filed bills from around 2,000 to around 500.
Toward the end of the year, they have eight days for the Senate to consider bills that passed out of the House and vice versa. With that time, the majority party decides whether it wants to spend those days passing 10 controversial bills that actually do stuff or like 190 uncontroversial bills plus maybe one or two controversial ones.
The reason why the majority can’t do both? The rules give the minority a bunch of little levers it can pull to run the clock. And each chamber has its own, special little time-wasting levers.
In both chambers, requesting time to caucus during floor debate is a popular way to waste time. It’s the legislative equivalent of calling a huddle that keeps the clock running for a minimum of about 20 or 30 minutes.
The rules also allow every member to speak on every amendment a lawmaker attempts to add to a bill, so members in the minority often try to load up disagreeable bills with as many amendments as they can.
This year, for instance, there will be 40 Republicans in the House. Each will have 10 minutes to speak to the final bill, and each can rise to speak to every amendment, which means they can spend hours and hours “debating” everything.
The Senate’s rules allow a simple majority to end debate. The House, however, requires a two-thirds majority to end debate. So, if House Democrats want to stop Republicans from filibustering, they have to get Republicans to join them in a vote to stop debate, or else spend hours shutting down bullshit amendments and disingenuous arguments. Chamber leaders can also zap certain frivolous amendments under certain conditions, but that doesn’t stop the minority from routinely trying to hang dozens of amendments on important legislation and wasting a lot of time.
Other little choices chip away at time, too. The Senate requires each of its members to scream each of their votes from the floor, which takes forever. By contrast, the House uses a roll-call machine that makes quick work of voting.
But, with the exception of the length of the session, the party in power doesn’t really have to put up with any of this shit.
The majority only needs half the class to pass the rules that govern legislative action in any given year. Democrats boast healthy majorities in both chambers, and so Democrats make the rules.
If they wanted to, on Monday they could have approved a package to kill the filibuster in the House, limit the number of amendments lawmakers can try to add to bills, reduce debate times, and create more efficiencies in the Senate. They also could have installed the most progressive members as committee chairs and told people to expect to work on weekends—including Sunday at noon. Those sorts of moves would allow the Dems to steamroll the GOP, a party that has comfortably housed election-deniers, climate-change deniers, and alleged domestic terrorists. But they didn’t.
The Reasons for Not Steamrolling the Minority
Time isn’t the only weapon in the minority’s arsenal. If they feel insulted or steamrolled, then they can do a bunch of bratty things to cause problems.
They can try to force lawmakers to read bills in full, or they can object to the House Speaker or to Senators moving bills along in the normal way, for example. Leadership could deal with all that, but it would be annoying.
The big thing they can do is deny votes on the bond measure that funds each year’s capital budget, which pays for new buildings and upgrades. That measure requires a supermajority to pass, and if the minority doesn’t play ball, then the majority might take the political hit for failing to fund new mental health hospitals, water treatment plants, aquariums, etc.
The fear of this level of dysfunction makes a certain amount of sense, but Republicans have done a lot of this stuff before—and they didn’t need the excuse of Democrats being meanies about the rules to do it.
Select Moments in Legislative Mayhem
In 2017, Republican Senators went nuclear and blocked passage of the capital budget—costing taxpayers millions—just because they were pissed about the Democrats not moving quickly enough to address a water rights issue.
When they took majorities in both chambers in 1995 after a major red wave election, Republicans quickly “rushed through a nearly half-billion-dollar business tax break” that aimed to freeze unemployment insurance rates for five years.
When they were in the majority in the early 1980s, Republicans had no problem tearing up legislative norms. The GOP-controlled House and Senate battled with each other over the budget until late November, when the Senate ignored a parliamentary rule to reconsider budget and sales tax bills to fill a $1.1 billion hole made by the recession, prompting the Seattle Times to write, “If you have the votes, you can do anything.”
The Republican Speaker of the House at that time, Mercer Island’s Bill Polk, was known as “King Polk.” He had “a mock red-velvet crown perched on his cabinet” in his office, and he earned his nickname for using his “large Republican Majority to run the House with march-step authority,” according to reports in the Seattle Times. The man cared so little for dissent in his chamber that colleagues referred to “House proceedings as ‘Polk’s Railroad.’”
After Polk and his freaks lost the majority, Republicans kept up the chicanery. “The minority party was really aggressive about making motions to derail things when I first got there in ’83. You had to be quick on your feet. Lot of gamesmanship,” said Judge Marlin Appelwick, who would later go on to serve as Democratic minority leader.
To be fair, Democrats used to be cool like that, too. In 1993, according to the Seattle Times, “some pundits” dubbed former (disgraced) Democratic Governor Mike Lowry “Governor Mayhem,” mostly for his efforts to “create a fairer tax system … make sure loggers could go to college for retraining … create world-class schools and end prison overcrowding … end traffic gridlock in Seattle and guarantee health insurance for everyone … and, if possible, to do it all in one legislative session.”
Republicans use power when they have it. Some Democrats used to do it, too.
That said, Republicans rode a red wave into Olympia right after Lowry shook up the Capitol. And even the GOP of the 1980s settled down after about “six years” and a few amended rules, Appelwick said. “They weren’t gaining anything, they were just stirring up stuff,” he added.
It's those kinds of considerations stay the hands of today’s legislative leaders.
In Defense of Not Going Nuclear
Making major changes to the rules to prevent the minority from slowing bills to a halt carries lots of risk.
Politically speaking, doing so would give Republicans an opportunity to scream about process rather than policy. And Democrats would rather “deny them their process complaints so that all they have are their policy complaints, which are valid,” according to Fitzgibbon.
Moreover, and more to the point, Democrats wouldn’t need to change all the rules to manage the clock a little better. Simply killing the House filibuster or limiting debate times would help. “We don’t want to be accused of—nor do we want it to be true—that we’re stifling debate. But we also want to manage our workflow effectively,” Fitzgibbon said, admitting to some willingness to consider changing rules to overcome obstruction if necessary.
“Voters have endorsed our work and endorsed our majority by expanding it by one seat in each chamber…I think we can rein it in a little” without disrespecting the 40% of voters who chose Republicans in the last election, he added.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Jamie Pedersen fundamentally believes that the Legislature exists to provide a nonviolent way of resolving disputes in society, and he doesn’t think you further that cause by “stifling dissent and not giving people an opportunity to raise a primal scream when they think it’s completely wrong-headed to require sex-ed in schools, for instance.”
“Maybe at some point some future Gen Z person will sit in my seat and prove me wrong by showing that you can accomplish way more if you just construct the rules so the majority decides everything, but I really believe that’s not the most efficient, productive, or even the right thing to do,” he added.
In the Legislature, he added, “the biggest efficiency in the system is trust.” If Republicans trust that Democrats will do what they say they will do, and if they feel respected, “then you can go way faster and do way more than if you have people constantly suspecting that they’re going to be cheated or undermined."
But of course, the current rules don’t just restrain the minority. They also help leadership restrain their majorities.
“The rules process partly exists to thin things out so the most important things survive, hopefully,” said Appelwick.
“Not everything should pass. You wouldn’t like that state. You couldn’t afford that state,” he added.
That makes sense to me. But at a certain point, with certain issues—climate change, housing, health care—we can’t afford not to pass big, controversial legislation that solves those problems for good. No matter the objection from the GOP or corporate lobbyists.