Opinion

Voters choose gridlock in 2010 midterms | Villeneuve

Riding a wave of voter frustration over the economy and the federal government itself, the Republican Party sailed into the majority in the House of Representatives from Tuesday
Riding a wave of voter frustration over the economy and the federal government itself, the Republican Party sailed into the majority in the House of Representatives from Tuesday's general election outcome.
— image credit: Frank Shires/cartoonist

Demonstrating their frustration with the slow pace of the economic recovery, voters across Washington State and America unwittingly chose legislative gridlock on Tuesday by opting to punish the party currently in power and rewarding the party that caused the mess, guaranteeing both an ideological and a partisan showdown over the future direction of the country.

At the federal level, voters gave control of the U.S. House to Republicans while leaving Democrats in charge of the U.S. Senate. Republicans have promised to try to repeal some of President Obama's legislative accomplishments, but have utterly failed to offer any concrete ideas for realizing their stated objectives, particularly reducing the deficit. It will soon become apparent to anybody who's paying attention that all they really have to offer is empty rhetoric and the same failed policies of the past.

Here in This Washington, voters put Gov. Chris Gregoire and the diminished Democratic majorities left in the statehouse in a straitjacket by approving Tim Eyman and BP's Initiative 1053, which makes it effectively impossible to raise revenue to protect vital public services. Voters also bought into the American Beverage Association's lies and blew an even bigger hole in the state budget. Defenders of the public interest failed to run strong campaigns against either I-1053 or I-1107, however, so voters aren't entirely to blame for the approval of these shortsighted measures.

Voters did reject the three other corporate initiatives, including two to deregulate the state's liquor system and one to destroy our publicly-administered industrial insurance system.

But the passage of I-1053 and I-1107 will have serious and destructive repercussions. Gov. Gregoire and the Legislature must now close a looming budget deficit through cuts alone. They won't be able to mitigate the damage with federal stimulus money like they did in the last biennium.

Consequently, the cuts will be unprecedented. Brutal. Devastating. Entire services, including many that readers of this column rely on, will be eviscerated. The Legislature may need to go into special session to complete a budget, since legislators are going to find a hard time finding agreement on what to cut; each lawmaker has particular services that they are willing to go to the mat for, Republicans included. See, the choices now aren't about where to trim fat. The choices now revolve around the question, which limbs do we amputate?

If that sounds grim, that's because it is.

The governor and legislators are likely to hold budget hearings to find out what constituents are willing to do without. Those who go to such hearings and complain about cutbacks should expect to be asked by activists after their testimony if they voted for either I-1053, I-1107, or both, because those who did have surrendered their standing to grouse about the elimination of services.

Washingtonians who naively think that they can have it both ways are in for a rude awakening. There is no free lunch. Vital public services cost money. If taxpayers don't want to pay for them, then they won't be provided. And quality of life will take a hit.

However, Washingtonians have made it clear repeatedly in past votes that they do care about vital public services like schools, parks, roads, pools, police protection, and fire protection. Voters just want to be reassured that their taxes are going directly to services. When they don't hear that reassurance – or when it gets drowned out by a barrage of misleading ads paid for by greedy corporations – they don't vote to protect public services.

What Tim Eyman and his allies won't admit is that their solution (go to the voters to get funding if needed) is impractical. Budgeting by initiative doesn't work. Our founders knew this, which is why they gave us a republican form of government.

The progressive populists who brought us the initiative and referendum wanted to give the people a way to bypass gridlock. They didn't intend for direct democracy to replace the legislative process or complicate it. They also didn't intend for their reforms to be used by corporations to purchase laws to their liking. But unfortunately, that's what just happened.

Voters may not have been thinking of making government more dysfunctional when they filled out their ballots, but voting out of anger often produces unexpected and unwanted consequences. Expect dithering and conflict to dominate our politics for the next two years.

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a Redmond-based grassroots organization. Villeneuve can be reached at andrew@nwprogressive.org.

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