Halls of lawmaking are never boring

By Rep. Laurie Jinkins

What’s it really like to be a lawmaker? What happens in committee rooms, hallways and the House floor? I can tell you one thing: it’s never boring.

Now, our average day isn’t like “House of Cards” or “Veep,” but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. So, I’m going to peel back the curtain and tell you a few secrets from Olympia.

My average day as chair of the House Judiciary Committee is very different from Rep. Jake Fey’s day as a vice chair of House Transportation, or Sen. Jeannie Darneille’s experience being in the Senate. While Fey was working on the transportation budget, I focused on my committee’s work. Judiciary deals with many of the most controversial issues: mental health, gun safety, the death penalty and tort liability. When you’re chair of a policy committee, you dive deep into one area and get to know those topics extremely well. A policy committee like Judiciary is a completely different world from work on the transportation, operating or capital budgets.

There are also distinct legislative phases. Early on, each chamber works on their own policy legislation. We spend most of our time in committees, listening to testimony and perfecting those bills. Most lawmakers serve on three committees. Each committee meets for two hours at a time. So early on, you might spend four to six hours a day in committee meetings.

Next, we switch from committees to the House floor. Instead of spending four to six hours every day in committee meetings, every member of the House is on the House floor voting on committee-passed bills. Sometimes, it takes all day and night. This year, we passed the operating budget around dinner time, then did other bills and passed the House capital (construction) budget around 3 a.m. There are years where the sun has come up before members finished and went home for the day.

The House Democrats and Republicans each have a room where they meet to talk about the bills coming up for a vote. These are called caucus rooms. Going to that room to talk is called “going to caucus.”

On some days, we might pass 50 bills, spending about half our time in caucus talking about legislation and amendments and the other half actually debating and voting on those bills. Amendments aren’t always written to improve legislation. Opponents of a bill will often try to kill legislation they don’t like by dropping a dozen or more amendments on a bill, knowing it will take hours to debate and pass that bill. So there’s a lot of parliamentary procedure and process once we get to the floor.

Some believe every piece of legislation is a controversial fight with passionate debate between Republicans and Democrats. The truth is, 95 percent of bills pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. But all you hear about are the 5 percent of controversial bills.

Next, we start the process over with policy bills passed by the Senate, and vice versa. Right now, the Senate is controlled by Republicans, so they tend to be skeptical of House bills and we look carefully at what the Senate sends over. You may have spent months or years generating support for legislation in the House, but if you didn’t work the Senate, your bill can die in a hurry.

The last step of session we’re on the floor until we reconcile certain House and Senate bills to go to the governor for signature, including the state’s three budgets (operating, transportation, and capital).

“Sine die” is the Latin phrase we use for the last day of session (roughly translated, it means “without assigning a day for a further meeting”). Most people don’t know the legislature has a long session of 105 days during odd-numbered years, when we pass two-year budgets, then short sessions of 60 days during even-numbered years to update budgets and laws as needed. Unfortunately, tough economic times and a divided legislature have required us to come back to “special sessions” to finish our work.

Legislation isn’t the only thing you work on during a session. When not on the floor or in committee meetings, most of us have four 15-minute meetings per hour with folks who want to talk to us about every topic under the sun. Then, there’s always casework from constituents back home, the bills you’ve prime sponsored and are trying to pass, meetings and events back home, and messages from constituents to respond to.

If this sounds like an overwhelming number of meetings, it is. Each lawmaker also keeps an open dialogue with constituents, community leaders, and elected officials back in district. Listening to each other is critical to getting things done. Nobody can dictate outcomes in our democracy. We have to work together, negotiate and compromise to find solutions.

It’s a myth that lawmakers live a glamorous life. Just like everyone’s job, there are long periods of hard work and meetings mixed in with highlight moments when your bill is signed by the governor or you help someone through a particular problem. These moments are rare, but they’re the ones that keep me coming back. Making a difference is something you can’t put a price on.

Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.

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