We’re halfway through the long session, yet the drama is just beginning.
It’s the first week in the opposite chamber for bills that cleared the first House of Origin cutoff. And the good news: we’re seeing hearings for several of our top bills! Folks are a little grumpy in Olympia after the death of a lot of good policy. Vibes is off. But we’re still moving along a few of our top six.
Abolish the Senate?
A quick walk through history. We know. Bear with us. Remember the founding fathers? Slave-holding men of freedom who wrote the documents we’re still trying to govern with? Well when they began thinking through the structure of the United States government, they created a popularly elected House of Representatives. This body would be made up of white dudes selected by the newly-minted American voters, by which, of course, we mean: white dudes.
Despite large swathes of the population—literally everyone else—excluded from voting, the planning progenitors had reservations about popular rule. Thus, the U.S. Senate was born. The Senate would serve as a check on the popularly elected House. Prior to 1913, the Senate wasn’t directly elected by voters. Instead, Senators were selected by state legislatures. The smaller numbers of the Senate paired with this indirect system of election were designed to keep power concentrated in the hands of those already holding it.
Fast forward to today and we still see echoes of this system in our federal and state systems. What does this mean for Washington? Our Senate is a more conservative body than our House with members who are disproportionately white, wealthy and already adjacent to power when they come into office. In Washington, House members are elected every two years while Senators are elected every four. There is one Senator for each district against two House members. The longer terms and smaller number of seats means that folks in the Washington Senate are more likely to have held other offices or had access to strong networks and funding before their run.
These structural forces produce conservative political decision making that is out of touch with the electorate. Over and over again, the state Senate frets about losing its majority while progressive champions in ostensibly “vulnerable” seats like Sen. Emily Randall (D-26) continue to vote their values and are rewarded at the ballot.
Washington’s Senate has a Democratic majority—which they’ll probably never lose—just like the House. But Senate Democrats aren’t as reliably progressive. To get a clearer picture, let’s zoom in on Sen. Rolfes’ troublesome Ways & Means committee—you know, the committee pretty much any bill with a significant fiscal note has to get through.
Ways & Means is a microcosm of the Senate floor where Democrats are in charge but hobbled by the folks in their caucus who consistently do the wrong thing. Think Senator Mark Mullet (D-5). He is the Vice-Chair of the Senate Ways & Means committee where he serves under Sen. Rolfes. Mullet has blocked progressive policy time and again. Also holding up the progressive agenda are Senators Van de Wege (D-24) and Annette Cleveland (D-49) who both bring that concerned Nice White Parent vibe to your kid’s PTA meeting. We’re hoping progressive champs like Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34) and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) pull through in Ways & Means but that still leaves the Senate floor and the rest of the clutch-my-pearl, white moderates whose policy positions betray a overly-paternalistic approach to governing.
The Washington Senate has historically been and continues to remain a big barrier when it comes to passing progressive policy for our communities. There’s a reason many of our bills passed off the House before cutoff and not the Senate. Some of these great policies will almost certainly die on the Senate again which is what happened last year and the year before that (and before that and before that ad infinitum). Maybe it’s time the Senate died instead.