When two lawmakers (from two parties) share a gavel

Co-Speakers in Washington State give new meaning to 'powersharing.'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There are pretzels and peanuts, here in the state House of Representatives. Not only that, there are dueling gavels. A pair of presiding chairs. And twin offices to house the two House leaders.

Welcome to the bipartisan world of Frank Chopp and Clyde Ballard, Washington State's co-Speakers.

And this isn't the first time the state House of Representatives has found itself in a pickle; this makes twice. Catching on?

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After November's election, Republicans and Democrats found themselves divided 49-to-49 in the House. Thus Co-Speaker Ballard, a rural Wenatchee Republican who has served as Speaker for the past four years, had to share that position with Co-Speaker Chopp, a Seattle Democrat.

Though a similar political balance in the nation's capital would change the course of history (imagine all action by the US House grinding to a halt until the co-chairs could agree), so far the month-old power sharing in the Northwest has been graceful, if sluggish.

"Parts of each of our parties would want us to move toward either spectrum," says says Chopp, longtime head of the Fremont Public Association, an agency that combats poverty, hunger, and homelessness. "But in this case we're forced to the middle, forced to focus on things that absolutely have to get done."

Ballard, who has managed a grocery store and medical-services company, predicts a 25 to 30 percent reduction in the approximately 800 bills the House usually passes. Individual members with pet bills will be less likely to get them out of committees when they need the support of co-chairs from opposing parties, he predicts.

"My hope is that we get through the end of the session," says Ballard, "without having a real meltdown."

Across the US, there have been 26 ties in state legislatures between 1966 and 1997, including the first in Washington's House in 1979. Ties have become more common with a shift in power between the parties, says Brenda Erickson, a senior analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

"In a lot of states, the balance between Democrats and Republicans is closer than it's ever been," she says.

THAT is making for some pretty unusual predicaments - and even more unusual solutions: Wyoming has decided ties with the toss of a coin. When the Florida Senate tied, one party's leader served as chamber president for the first year of the term, followed by the other party's leader the second year. The first president's irrevocable letter of resignation was kept locked away, to make sure no overlapping of power occurred.

Some split legislatures have created emergency backup plans, such as the Idaho Senate's "extraordinary leadership committee," which would intervene when bills were hopelessly deadlocked at the committee level. When Michigan had co-Speakers, each had a dozen "silver bullet" votes, to use to break ties.

"What most states do is make it work. They have to, to get the work done," says Erickson, who worked for the Minnesota State Legislature when it was tied in 1979.

"Generally the legislation that has come through has been good legislation," she says. "You're going to get more moderate legislation coming through, because ... the majority of people are moderate."

But after Indiana's House was split in 1988, she notes, legislators said never again, and decided to lose a seat in the next census to avoid future ties.

So far, the Washington Legislature has worked on mild-mannered bills, such as requiring children under 12 to wear life jackets on boats, leading one Democrat to predict a session of "Cheez Whiz" bills.

But Ballard acknowledges the going will likely get tougher, and the topics more controversial. "We're going to get into more difficult issues in the future," he says.

Hanging on the wall of his Olympia office, a Bible verse reads: "But the wisdom that comes from above ... allows discussion and is willing to yield to others."

"It's applicable," he says, glancing at the gavel he uses to wield his half of the power.

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