Writings and observations

Firewall

What exactly is one state legislator in Washington doing interfering in the communications of another with his constituents?

In essence, that’s happening in Washington, through the intermediary of legislative staff.

All this grows out of a principle, enshrined in rules in various ways in many states, that legislators should refrain from personal attacks on each other. That makes some sense; start down that road and cooperative legislating soon becomes impossible. The imperative is to stick to the issues.

But that principle usually applies to speech and statements in official proceedings, on the floor and in committee. And ordinarily, it doesn’t serve to limit lawmakers from saying what they want about substantive matters, or characterizing them as they will. Especially to constituents.

Glenn AndersonEnter a Washington legislative rule from 1998, which had bipartisan support, which said that attacks by legislators on other legislators should not be supported with state money, in whatever means. Here it starts to get tricky, because you wind up with bad cases like the one Representative Glenn Anderson, a Republican from Falls City, is contending with.

Like many other legislators, he sends his constituents newsletters. The House clerk’s office has taken to editing these, to the point of insisting of what he can and cannot say about issues – because some of what he says about some issues could be taken as criticism of majority Democrats.

A piece in the Tacoma News Tribune notes Anderson’s newsletter referred to “Enron-type accounting schemes”, for example, in descriving the budget passed largely by Democrats. That is, of course, a criticism. But to remove every comment like that truly amounts to censorship of communication between legislator and constituent – and political communication, as the Supreme Court is wont to note, has to be as open and protected as possible. Even if someone’s feelings get hurt. Which they should not in this case: The attack was on policy, not on personality. And let’s get real here: This is politics. It is about disagreement and different ways of looking at things. That is supposed to be true in a legislature above all public places.

The Tacoma paper reported that Anderson has taken to writing lines to his constituents such as, “The use of [*censored*] accounting and [*censored*] in Olympia continues to be business as usual.” It makes his point, poignantly.

Anderson is not alone in all this; Republican press released have been bowdlerized as well. (The phrase “shell game,” used to descibe the budget process, was similar excised.)

If Democrats retain control of the Washington legislature next session, they could do worse than to quit editing their opposition’s public communications. That kind of activity has led to some bad stuff already, and left unchecked it’s bound to get worse.

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