The shutdown of the federal government has left many Americans scratching their heads. It’s hard for outsiders to understand why the political parties can’t just work together. My own experience as a lawmaker at the state level might provide a valuable lesson in overcoming political gridlock.
In March of last year, I and two other Democrats in the Washington State Legislature broke with our Senate caucus to work with the Republican minority on a state budget. Within days I received 8,000 negative emails, hundreds of letters, and my local police department felt compelled to park a squad car on my residential street for protection. One of my colleagues warned me that the only job I’d ever get in the future would be as a gas station attendant.
Surprising to some, withstanding this fire eventually helped in the passage of a groundbreaking package of fiscal reforms. And the resulting budget passed with historic bipartisan support. The seeds of this success led to a bipartisan coalition running the Senate and for the first time appointing bipartisan committee chairs.
What I learned from this experience was that to find your footing on common ground, it takes willingness – and courage – to actually step onto it.
One reason I was able to work well with Republicans was my choice to literally sit on their side of the aisle in the Senate chamber. I did so originally as a junior senator (our party had the majority and couldn’t all fit on one side). As my seniority increased, I did it because I wanted to. However trivial that may seem, it allowed me to build relationships with these lawmakers and their families, discover areas where we agree, and build trust. We still had sharp differences, but I found a willingness to work problems out, rather than fight.
This cross-pollination proved highly useful during last year’s ferocious budget battle. The state faced a $2 billion deficit – not as bad as the $5 billion shortfall in 2011, but the solutions for bridging this gap were fewer and more contentious.
To bring fiscal discipline to the budget process, some hard reforms were needed. I worked with a small group of moderate Senate Democrats (we were known as the “roadkill caucus” for being run over by partisan extremism) to advance 18 different reforms, ranging from a six-year constitutional balanced budget amendment to major agency restructuring. Unfortunately with just a week to go in the session, not one of these reforms had made it through the legislative process.
It was around this time that the chief budget writer for the Senate Republicans, then-Sen. Joe Zarelli, approached me with the idea of presenting an alternative budget, with needed reforms.
My first thought was, “That’s gutsy.”
You see, usually minority parties don’t offer their own budgets, only the assurance that if they were in the majority, theirs would be better. Democrats, Republicans – they both do this.
I said, “I’m in.”
The only problem was, with little time left in the session, the only way to get the budget to the floor for a vote was to clear the way with a legislative bomb – a rare maneuver known as the 9th Order. Imagine an organ playing Boris Karloff horror music and a loud scream – that’s what the 9th Order evokes for Washington state lawmakers.
This motion is used to bring any bill directly to the floor with the simple majority of members present – even bills that had been deliberately squashed by the majority party. It is a coup that only happens once every four to five years. But regarding the budget, only once every 25 years.
So, with just six days to go, a coalition of bipartisan senators made a motion to go to the 9th Order.
The hallways outside the Senate chamber emptied and the balconies filled. People came to see a once-in-a-quarter-century event. Parliamentarians scrambled. My colleagues made it very clear to me that my career was over.
What happened from that point was like the cold war. Unable to reach any agreement, the legislature went into a special session, scheduled to last 30 days.
Frustrated at the lack of progress, our bipartisan coalition held a press conference and put forward a new budget, one that would closely represent an imagined budget, had it actually been negotiated between the House and the Senate.
Bolstered by positive editorial boards around the state, our coalition made it clear that, if needed, we would keep meeting to ensure long-term reforms were adopted.
As the final night of the special session wore on, the walls of resistance started to crumble, and there was hope that we would finish. Frankly, my colleagues had never spent this much time on a budget before, and were fatigued and willing to compromise to get out of there.
What happened next, in a mere matter of hours, was historic:
Agreement was found on a four-year balanced budget bill that would prevent future legislatures from punting expenses into the next biennium. Pension reform would save the state $1.3 billion over 25 years. Health-care plans for school employees would be consolidated – finally creating a way to bring transparency to overpriced health care. Also approved was a jobs package and an agreement to close an out-of-state bank tax loophole. Newspapers throughout Washington applauded the results.
Before this session, I was once asked how to achieve substantial change within government. I responded that a small and determined group of elected leaders, perhaps 10 to 15 people, could make a huge difference. However, to be effective, they must commit to the best public policies above political party loyalty – with the understanding that their political careers might well end.
In Washington state, it happened with just three Democratic senators crossing the political Rubicon, breaking with their party when it was merited. While the “other Washington” plots and schemes, a state such as mine shows that common ground can be found on spending and reform.
But it takes courage.
Jim Kastama served for 16 years in the Washington State Legislature. In January he retired after an unsuccessful run for Washington secretary of State. He consults with businesses, government, and universities on innovation and technology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers: This is one of a new series by guest writers who offer ways to soften many of the polarizing debates over issues that sharply divide people. Are you working with others who don’t share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at email@example.com.