COMPARED TO Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, the Tyee Motel never rated very highly on the Sin-O-Meter. By the standards of Tumwater, Wash., just down the road

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Missing the bad old days

A sanitized, transparent government can't make the necessary compromises.

COMPARED TO Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, the Tyee Motel never rated very highly on the Sin-O-Meter. By the standards of Tumwater, Wash., just down the road a piece from the state Legislature, however, it was Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one. A cabana at the Tyee was just the spot for a legislator to indulge in a little illicit R&R or come to an understanding with some well-heeled asphalt contractors you wouldn't necessarily want to be seen with in public.

But the Tyee is gone, razed to make room for a Fred Meyer, and with it (pretty much everybody agrees), the last link to the Bad Old Days in Olympia. In a way it had already long outlived its role. With a third of House seats and nearly half the Senate's held by females, the old boys'-night-out spirit that used to enliven legislative sessions faded years ago, and members' days and nights are so full of hearings on dizzyingly arcane matters and meetings with constituents that no one's got much time or energy for sin, anyway.

But the loss of the Tyee represents a greater loss. The other day, ex-Governor Dan Evans dropped by the Senate Ways and Means Committee to testify about our state's inefficient and iniquitous tax structure. After his talk, Evans, nobody's idea of a party animal, fell to reminiscing about the bad old days with old-timers on the committee like Long Beach's Sid Snyder (celebrating his 50th year of legislative service) and Seattle's Senator Pat Thibaudeau.

By the time they finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. When Evans was first governor, legislators had no offices and no staffs, and the Senate floor after hours looked like a high-school study hall, filled with members perusing bills, catching up on their mail, and chatting with one another while waiting to use one of the Chamber's two phones. "We got to know each other, learned how to work together," said Snyder sadly. "There's nothing like that now."

And without something like that, an essential element of successful government is gone. There has to be someplace where legislators can let their hair down and know that what they say will never be repeated outside the door of the smoked-filled room.

AT BOTTOM, POLITICS is about power, and legislatures exist in part to explore the distribution of power and expedite the manufacture of compromise among those who hold it. Like the manufacture of sausage, the process is not a pretty sight; it often involves sacrificing one interest for the benefit of another, backing down on abstract principle to procure real-world gain.

In the squeaky-clean Olympia of today, every awkward step of the process—every regrouping, retreat, and evasion—takes place in the full light of day. How do you practice the art of compromise when compromise is immediately branded a betrayal by one side or the other?

The PTA-ification of the legislative process means that every issue becomes a matter of principle, and issues that aren't amenable to principled solutions—those that can be cracked only by cutting deals, carving spoils, persuading everybody to accept half a loaf—become effectively insoluble.

The shoreline management rules recently propounded by the Washington State Department of Ecology are a dandy example. Ecology's experts have labored mightily to come up with a principled program to protect riverbanks and beaches from unacceptable degradation. But one person's degradation is another's livelihood; a third's conservation entails a fourth's bankruptcy. No formula, however subtle, can yield solutions equally acceptable in the counties of Klikitat, Okanogan, Whatcom, and King. The best you can hope for is finding piecemeal solutions that are equally unacceptable to all. And principle won't get you one step of the way there.

Paralysis on shoreline protection is just the latest manifestation of the most intractable governmental problem in the state. Squabbles over water rights began before the Washington Territory achieved statehood and have only grown more acute ever since as population has grown and urban, agricultural, and recreational development have converged to claim a resource limited by nature.

The shoreline and water rights questions have no right or wrong answers, only a thousand little answers representing the outcome of a thousand little dickers. And you just can't dicker with a roomful of people looking over your shoulder. In some ways, Washington's horrible budget crunch is the least of the problems facing legislators: The law says they can't go home without passing one, and a balanced one at that. But with the House and Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the only way to avoid total paralysis and accomplish at least a modicum of necessary public business is through the awkward, inelegant contortions of compromise—without a smoke-filled room anywhere in sight.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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