Experiment offers breakthrough in legislation

I have to believe the disagreement that’s paralyzing Washington, D.C., is partly due to labels such as “conservative” or “liberal” that keep lawmakers from collaborating and getting our nation back on track.

That’s why a recent development in our state Senate is so remarkable. A group of Democrats and Republicans has stepped forward with a commitment to cooperate like never before to govern responsibly, rather than politically.

This coalition of two Democrats and 23 Republicans will have a 25-seat majority in our 49-member Senate when the Legislature convenes Jan. 14. The new “Majority Coalition Caucus” has signed on to a set of principles that include a firm commitment to working across party lines, even changing the structure of the Senate to make that happen.

The coalition has replaced the traditional legislative-committee arrangement with a more inclusive approach. Typically the Senate majority appoints only its own members to lead committees. That allows for firm control of the agenda because committee chairs can block minority-party legislation. The new bipartisan majority has instead done something completely different, appointing its members to head only six of the Senate’s 15 policy or fiscal committees.

The Senate minority was invited to appoint six other committee chairs, with the remaining three panels to have a co-chair from each side.

Committee lineups also have changed to encourage cooperation. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, for example, will have 12 majority and 11 minority members. That’s a lot more bipartisan than the preceding two years of 13 majority party members and nine minority members.

I was a committee chairman in 2001 when Senate Democrats had the majority, and again in 2003 even though Republicans had control. Although my Democratic colleagues have rejected the coalition’s offer to appoint their own committee chairs, there’s time to reconsider – and I hope they will. It gives each side a clear path to move ideas forward, and I’m proof it can work.

My reasons for joining the Majority Coalition Caucus begin with the obvious: I’ve seen what a bipartisan coalition can do. With time running out in the 2012 session, Senate Democratic leaders didn’t have the 25 votes needed to move their budget proposal forward; that’s when a “philosophical majority” of Democratic and Republican senators emerged to fill the void. I was part of that coalition and am convinced that without it, the people of Washington wouldn’t have seen the sustainable budget and groundbreaking state-government reforms the Legislature ultimately passed.

When the 2012 session ended, The Olympian editorialized about the “major reform measures that seem reasonable” and the “successful compromise splashed with a certain bipartisan flavor.”

That’s exactly what we’re aiming for again in 2013.

The Majority Coalition Caucus offers the biggest tent in Olympia. Joining simply means signing up to focus on our state’s most pressing issues, such as the economy and jobs, the budget, and giving our kids a world-class education. It won’t surprise me if more senators do that during the upcoming 105-day session.

The skeptics question whether we can be effective and if we’ll be able to reach consensus with the House of Representatives. It’s even been suggested that one-party control is more efficient – a claim that’s hard to prove, considering the Legislature has gone into overtime four of the past half-dozen years.

If I didn’t believe this approach has great potential, I wouldn’t have committed to it. We need good ideas to address serious issues. While I haven’t changed my party affiliation or my values, I recognize how dialing the partisanship back can help good ideas move forward.

I am looking forward to this grand experiment in governing together and seeing how many new breakthroughs we can achieve by working as a coalition from day one of the session. It will be refreshing to focus on policymaking without as much interference from politics. Knowing the people who have sent me to the Capitol for 22 years already, that’s what they would probably prefer too.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, has been named by both the Senate Democratic Caucus and the new Senate Majority Coalition Caucus to serve as president pro tem of the Senate. He can be reached at timothy.sheldon@leg.wa.gov.