Could the state House govern from the center, too?

Washington is under divided government, and for taxpayers that’s been nothing but good news. Republicans in the state Senate put the brakes on large tax increase proposals from Gov. Inslee and House Democrats the past few years.

If you listen to some in Olympia who are used to controlling all of the levers of power, you’d think this divided government was some sort of strange aberration – a weird fluke that will surely correct itself soon. But while the Olympia crowd has half-way adjusted to a Republican Senate, they’ll have a new wrinkle to deal with in January: a more closely-divided House than any we’ve seen for a long time.

After the House’s 49-49 tie from 1999-2001 (in which co-speakers ran the chamber with an awkward double-handled gavel), things didn’t go so well for House Republicans. At their low point in 2007, House Republicans were down to just 35 members, with little influence beyond the power of their criticisms. But with good education-focused candidates who fit their districts, they’ve added members every election since 2008 and are back to near-parity, 48-50.

Those tight numbers have some wondering – are there any Democrats who feel the House is run like it’s the Seattle City Council? Could a House Democrat or two decide they’re tired of the tax-first approach and stand up for fiscal discipline?

That could make 2016 a little more interesting. It’s happened before. Back in 1964, House Republicans and conservative Democrats joined together to oust Speaker John L. O’Brien. Pete von Reichbauer’s party switch in 1981 changed the state Senate to Republican control.

More recently, the so-called “Roadkill Caucus” of moderate Senate Democrats rebelled over the 2012 budget. These more tax-wary Democrats saw the need for state spending reforms before asking voters for higher taxes. In 2013, two dissident Democrats joined with Republicans to formally take over the chamber.

All of which is to say, when partisan control is narrow, dissatisfied legislators can decide they want the Legislature to govern differently. The Senate has shown the way the last few years. There, some senators with similar beliefs but different parties set those partisan differences aside and governed from common ground.

Are there any House Democrats who want to try a similar arrangement that steers the Legislature toward the political center? Especially for districts outside Central Puget Sound, even constituents who regularly elect Democrats aren’t excited about the prospect of higher taxes to fund general government. Breaking away to join with other legislators who believe in fiscal discipline would be a big move – and quite likely a popular one.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.