American physicist and co-father of the atomic bomb Edward Teller said, “Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”
Late last week, in a secretive and soul-crushingly bipartisan process, lawmakers in Olympia conspired to prove Teller right.
Washington state legislators this session needed to deal with a Superior Court judge’s decision in a lawsuit brought last year by several media organizations and others that ruled that lawmaker’s records are not exempted from state public records laws. The mandate for lawmakers was to create a system for providing the public the same transparency as all other state and local government agencies are legally required to provide. They chose to do the opposite. Instead of embracing the liberating power of sunlight, the vast majority of lawmakers passed a bill that would consolidate firm authority over their own records: Senate Bill 6177.
The process used to ram through SB 6177 matched the cloistered and cynical spirit of the measure. It was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday and without a hearing or open debate was voted on in both the Senate and House on Thursday.
The roll call in the Senate was 47 yea, 7 nay, and one member was absent. Almost immediately the House held its vote and the margin was nearly identical – 83 yeas, 14 nays with one member excused from voting. The roll calls are posted after this article.
Although technically complying with the court’s ruling, SB 6177 would establish a system under which old records would be off-limits from the public and new ones would only be disclosed after the legislature itself decides on whether they can be released. Those decisions would not be subject to judicial review if SB 6177 becomes law. It is the quintessential case of politicians trying to make a promise to the public with their fingers are crossed permanently behind their backs.
SB 6177 is the assurance of a pack of wolves to a flock of sheep that a wolf committee will guarantee that all sheep-related requests will receive action… except the ones they deem in conflict with wolf survival. Sheep, shepherds, and watchdogs alike should rest easy. Right? No, of course, all non-wolves should be on alert.
Our lawmakers must understand that their legitimacy for doing all of this fancy government stuff stems from informed consent; fully informed consent can’t be given without more public knowledge of the process and the players involved in creating laws and public policy.
The people have a fundamental right to judge whether their interests are being served by their elected representatives. In fact, we should take this opportunity to collectively downvote the supposed and oft-quoted wisdom of 19th century German statesman Otto Von Bismarck that lawmaking and sausage-making are activities best not seen too intimately by the public. Not only does it make good sense to put an asterisk beside Bismarck’s thoughts as they might not emanate from the American school of democratic thought – his own political career was perpetuated less by electoral consent than by a series of appointments to successively higher offices – but it’s also a matter of precaution. As consumers of Olympia brand sausage, we can learn to stomach some of the grist and gristle as a necessary step toward getting rid of some of the tainted meat and rodent hair.
SB 6177 now sits on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk waiting to either be signed (or not signed) into law – only a veto by the governor can give lawmakers a mulligan to reconsider their decision.
Roll Calls of Each Legislative Body on ESB 6617
Washington State Senate
Washington State House of Representatives
[Featured image: jfergusonphotos]