In the early days of COVID-19, Gov. Jay Inslee provided the rapid response the state needed through executive action. However, as the pandemic wore on, his ongoing power gate-keeping, cutting the Legislature out of decision-making, became increasingly difficult to justify.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers are supporting a Senate bill that would ensure that future lawmakers can better serve as a check on such executive overreach.
The State Constitution empowers lawmakers to convene a special session if the governor declines to do so, as Inslee did throughout last year. And lawmakers may meet for up to 30 days if two-thirds of each chamber votes for it.
The snag is procedural. The Constitution says that lawmakers must call the session “in accordance with such procedures as the legislature may provide by law or resolution.”
Yet no law spells out those procedures. Instead, lawmakers typically include them in the joint rules resolution that they pass for each biennium. That resolution codifies many of the technical details of how the Legislature will do business for the next two years.
But joint resolutions have been hard to muster in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said that this session is the first time in several years that lawmakers passed a joint rules resolution. There wasn’t one last year. “So, this past interim, we actually had no way legally to call ourselves into special session,” he said.
That’s why the Democratic leader has partnered with Senate Republican Leader John Braun of Centralia and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to make the rules permanent. If SB 5196 passes, the Legislature could call itself into a special session with the two-thirds vote the Constitution requires. They could say to a governor who prefers to go it alone during a crisis, “Um, no. The people’s representatives will have a voice in how Washington responds to this emergency.”
That would have been helpful last year when the governor was making a lot of far-reaching decisions on his own. Lawmakers of both parties wanted to act. Not least, the Legislature could have addressed the looming budget crisis and passed small business relief if it had been summoned to Olympia.
Two-thirds of the House and Senate is a high bar, especially in these partisan times, so it’s highly unlikely that lawmakers would abuse this power. Indeed, the Legislature has never called itself into session in the history of the state, Billig said.
The Legislature’s failure to pass a rules resolution, as happened last year, shouldn’t stymie Washington’s constitutional system of checks and balances. Put the procedures into law so that this isn’t an issue ever again.