"How many times," the voice asked, "have each of us been dismayed, been upset, been frustrated, ready to tear our hair out?" It sounded like an ad for a sedative. But it was a desperation plea by Washington legislator Jeanne E. Kohl-Welles, testifying on behalf of her ballot initiative to expand the state House of Representatives to an odd number of seats. Her goal is to break a 49-49 tie between Republicans and Democrats that has bogged down legislation and set nerves on edge almost continuously in Olympia for the last three years. "We've just got a horrible situation all around," she says.
The initiative doesn't stand a chance. The House has shown no interest in it, with one of the two co-speakers responding that he cares more about reforming the Senate, where Kohl-Welles happens to serve. Indeed, there are legislators in Olympia who are happy with the current partisan stalemate, because they believe it keeps the legislature from making dangerous mischief.
But by practically any measure of performance, this year's legislative session in Washington State has been a bust. A $9 billion transportation package hung on the verge of enactment for weeks, ultimately requiring a third special session. Governor Gary Locke had already called two extra sessions to get the state's necessary work done, with legislators not even managing to hammer out an operating budget until mid-June. They had long since given up on rewriting Washington's primary election laws, which the U.S. Supreme Court had found unconstitutional. Even in matters less controversial, House members didn't bother to file as many bills as usual, dispirited as they were about the prospects for pushing things through.
The bottom line is that neither side has the votes to get anything done. "Both the executive and the legislative branches are being frustrated by the tie in the House," says Jennifer Joly, Locke's legislative director. "It's just not natural to the political process to have a tie. The legislative process isn't designed that way."
Legislatures have never been touted as models of efficiency. There are nearly always too many factions and too many independent egos to allow management by simple hierarchy. But the difficulty of converting conflict into compromise is magnified many times when, as in Washington State, the general election creates a partisan tie.
Ties used to be relatively rare situations, but in the past decade they have become fixtures on the American legislative scene. Every election cycle since 1984 has resulted in at least one tied chamber somewhere. Last year, voters created ties in five separate legislative bodies: the Washington House, and the Maine, South Carolina, Arizona and Missouri Senates. Two of the ties were later broken: A party switcher threw control of the South Carolina Senate to the GOP, while special elections established Republican control in Missouri. But that still left three deadlocks, including the one in Washington, which has now continued unabated for nearly three years.
The outbreak of stalemate is largely a result of the increasingly competitive nature of state legislative politics. Democrats once enjoyed nearly a 2-1 edge in legislative seats nationwide, but the GOP has pulled to virtual parity. Thus more legislatures are in play, more hang on the results in a handful of marginal districts, and more of them inevitably are going to come out tied.
When deadlock occurs, leaders are forced to reinvent the wheel, coming up with a variation on power-sharing arrangements that have been tried somewhere before. In some cases, as in Washington State, Democratic and Republican House speakers alternate control of the floor every other day. In others, Senate presidents rotate in and out of power at the end of each year.
But what matters more than the details of the arrangement are the personal skills and attitude of the leaders. Handling a tied legislature is a little like negotiating a Middle East peace agreement. Ideally, the principals seek to foster an atmosphere of trust, determined to make things work. Frequently, however, long- simmering animosities make this difficult or well-nigh impossible.
The Washington House took its difficult situation this year and found a way to make it worse. Hoping to enforce party discipline, the House adopted a rule giving both of the two co-speakers veto authority over any legislation to be considered on the floor. If either Democrat Frank Chopp or Republican Clyde Ballard doesn't like a bill, he can single-handedly block it, even if 97 of his colleagues are for it. The co-committee chairmen enjoy the same power over bills under their jurisdiction at the committee level.
Ballard and Democratic Governor Locke don't see eye to eye on a lot of matters--their disagreements date back to Locke's time in the House--so the Speaker's one-man veto has been the GOP's easiest means of killing Locke-backed legislation. Ballard used it, for instance, to kill a Kohl-Welles bill to lift legal liability for mothers who abandon babies in safe places. But Chopp has not been shy about exercising this prerogative, either. He used his veto power to frustrate a Senate proposal to remake the state's primary elections to comply with a court mandate.
And when it comes to transportation, the most debated issue to come before the legislature this year, both co-speakers have found ways to exploit the deadlock. The Puget Sound area is rated in some studies as second-worst only to Los Angeles for congestion, yet Washington State has not boosted its transportation revenue formula for a decade. But Chopp is unhappy about a deal allowing a private authority to collect tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, while Ballard wants changes in contracting laws that require workers to be paid a union wage in rural areas.
"The truth be known, even if the House is not in a tie, a speaker can really put his foot down," says Lincoln Ferris, a lobbyist for the Washington Transportation Alliance. But the tie, he says, "has tended to polarize matters on some issues where they think for campaign purposes it would be better to let the other side take the heat."
The evenly divided Maine Senate hasn't faced the tensions present in the Washington House. But that's largely because it has avoided trying to do very much. Rather than blocking each other's pet projects, the two parties have refrained from considering major legislation at all whenever possible.
The Maine Senate managed to work its way into a tie under difficult conditions: It is an odd-numbered chamber. Republicans and Democrats each control 17 seats, with the one independent refusing to throw the majority to either party.
Both sides have practiced conspicuous courtesy. When individual senators have to be absent on a given day, the opposition agrees not to take controversial votes. "We're really trying to work this out and be very civil," says Republican Senator Mary Small. "There's kind of an unwritten rule that we don't want to be the first one to upset that. We're just trying to keep things going on a very agreeable basis."
From the outside, however, the arrangement doesn't look quite as successful. "I'm not sure they're actually getting along," says Patrick Colwell, majority leader in the Maine House, which Democrats control. "I think what they've realized is that they can probably protect each other's interests, in a way, without being able to act individually."
Jill Goldthwait, the independent senator who created the deadlock by declining to join either side, chairs the Appropriations Committee. She crafted a budget that won approval from the House and the governor, but not from her own chamber. Instead, the Senate voted 34-1 in favor of an alternative budget widely criticized as a "cookie jar" with treats in it to protect the political interests of the two evenly-divided parties.
The Senate's budget imposed no tax increases. It authorized additional revenue sharing to cities and towns but included no money for that program beyond the current two-year period. If the next legislature wants to maintain funding levels for revenue sharing, as well as for education and other programs, it will have to increase taxes.
"It seems as though both parties at least want to give the outward appearance that they're all one big happy family," says Phillip E. Harriman, formerly the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Whether the good feelings contribute toward resolution of the state's problems, he warns, is another issue. Where neither side feels itself motivated to take responsibility for difficult decisions, bipartisanship may not be quite as desirable a commodity as it seems.
Recent history does provide some examples, though, of how parties forced to meet as equals, but willing to accept political responsibility, can accomplish a great deal. The shining example in this regard is the tied Michigan House of 1993-1994. That chamber surprised the entire state by agreeing on a way to restructure school financing--a goal that had been elusive in Michigan for the previous 20 years. Public confidence in the legislature increased dramatically. Paul Hillegonds, who was the Republican co-speaker at the time, recalls those being "the best two years" of his 18 in the House, including ones in which he was speaker outright.
The tie was broken in 1994 and Republicans took control of the chamber, only to find themselves unable to pass a fuel tax needed to repair the state's infrastructure. "As soon as you change the method of agenda setting," Hillegonds says, "a different dynamic sets in."
The closest thing to a Michigan-style success this year seems to be occurring in Arizona, where a tied Senate has been more productive than most of its Republican or Democratic predecessors. Last November's elections left the Senate split at 15-15. The next day, Republican Randall Gnant announced he and the chamber's Democrats had a plan. Gnant would serve as president, while Democrats would chair the Judiciary and Appropriations committees. Gnant had been anticipating this situation all summer. Figuring that the election would result in a tied or nearly tied Senate, he crafted a deal to circumvent his more conservative Republican colleagues who had long dominated the chamber.
Under this makeshift arrangement, the Senate took up and passed a number of bills that had long languished under partisan leadership. The legislature repealed sex laws that had made it a crime to engage in "open and notorious cohabitation" or to commit "the infamous crime against nature." It addressed a decade-old problem of understaffing in the Highway Patrol and approved $150 million over two years for the state's long underfunded mental health programs. Perhaps most important, legislators approved a contract that should guarantee Arizona adequate water to accommodate growth far into the century.
Needless to say, not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Conservative Republicans complain that the tied chamber was basically run by Democrats, with Gnant serving as a Republican leader in name only. But the prodigious legislative output has impressed much of the state. The Arizona Republic called this year's Senate "a model of efficiency." Public opinion researcher Earl de Berge, while joking that the legislature is "the institution that everyone loves to hate," says polls show that approval ratings for the institution have improved by double digits. Those are real coups for a legislature that last year gave itself a black eye with a badly drafted alternative fuels tax subsidy, which has already cost the state $120 million.
Gnant has not used his presidency to promote personal projects. He says that will be different next year, when he intends to push through an education plan and other measures to address the state's continuing population boom. Still, Gnant, who wrote a book about the legislative process as a freshman legislator, remains a believer in the ideal of bipartisanship, when practiced intelligently. Most issues, he says, simply aren't partisan in nature. "If a Republican and a Democrat both introduced a bill and it was on parks or something like that-- something that isn't a Democratic or Republican issue--I will treat the Democratic bill as well as the Republican."
If more legislative leaders thought that way, more deadlocked chambers might work out the way the Arizona Senate did this year, or the Michigan House did in the early 1990s. But the evidence seems to be that not many of them do. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote more than a century ago, "in the last resort, a man rightly prefers his own interest to that of his neighbors. And this is as true in legislation as in any other form of corporate action." That's what makes coping with a deadlocked legislative chamber so tough.