Olympia, Passover and the journey toward our higher nature.
In the frantic battle underway to conclude the Special Session of the 2012 Legislative season, the real world elbows its way into the halls of Olympia as many of us hunger to reconnect with our families and make room for the spiritual blessings of Passover and Easter.
The Special Session has endured for nearly a month with the governor and legislative leaders locked daily in budget rooms while vote counting, debates, staff analysis, financial studies and policy discussions circle outside. For much of the time a majority of legislators have been at home with the occasional conference call, electronic vote count and meeting. For the past week we have been in Olympia day and night struggling to reach consensus on a ‘go home’ package of budget and policy bills.
As the bright cherry blossoms of the Capital Campus explode, and the Spring sun warms the dome, it’s hard not to drift away from inside-game, hard ball politics toward the more gentle reflections that come from appreciating the honor of serving the public as an elected citizen legislator.
Anonymous blog post commenters joyously attack the values, integrity and ethics of those in public office—the dreaded ‘politician’—but most citizens hopefully acknowledge on some private level that we are real people living real lives who so appreciate the opportunity to serve our communities. We agonize over the complexity of policy options and the seriousness of our work. Writing multi billion budgets and the taxes to support them is not easy.
While editorials freely criticize the Legislature for not simply reaching consensus almost regardless of the policy implications, the process of representative democracy is designed to slowly and reflectively reduce the fervency of partisan demands.
Sometimes it works smoothly and sometimes it does not. When one chamber, the Senate in today’s situation, is effectively deadlocked the incentive of individuals is to magnify their power and hold the broader budget hostage to specific policy priorities. It’s the nature of a democratic system in some way and even understandable. The challenge for those who see the influence of their individual votes strengthened is to realize their actions have profound consequences on a broader level.
All 147 legislators have a special relationship with the public as duly elected representatives of the people. It is circumstances of timing and numbers that leads some to elevate their willingness to play hardball and take advantage of their positions. While I understand it, and can even appreciate the theater in this particular situation, I worry about the more systemic political implications both inside and outside of the halls of state government in the long run.
Each of us takes our obligation seriously and the public has a right to expect a rigorous objective analysis of policies that should stand on their own. When a policy bill that may not have support on its own merits is required as a condition of a budget deal, it should at least be openly acknowledged for the public to understand. To hold a budget vote hostage for a policy bill that otherwise would not have a majority of 147 elected legislators may be standard operating procedure in the world of politics, but such moves ferment cynicism among the people we represent.
We mourn the lack of the public’s belief in the dignity and integrity of public service. Both the public and elected officials are complacent in building some level of institutional and societal disengagement: The public for continually demanding more public services without taxes and elected officials for continually attempting to grant their wishes.
In a different generation, when John F. Kennedy rose to challenge the better side of our nation’s nature and believe in the common good, we collectively reached out to serve our society. While the ‘Mad Men’ era was rife with obnoxious moral and philosophical inconsistencies, it was also a time of romantic communal beliefs about the possibilities of our society. “Ask not” was more than a rhetorical hook, it touched something deeper inside of our society.
It is certain that hardball, inside political negotiations and tactics are nothing new in Olympia, Washington, D.C. or anywhere else. It’s part of the fun and intrigue, tension and opportunity of politics and government. But this week as we enter Passover and Easter—as the real life importance of family, community and spiritual engagement rises—there is value in reflecting upon the implications of such games on our system of representative democracy.
In my view, such tactics do not appeal to our higher nature. they do not reflect the values of our citizens and they do not serve us well.
The humility of servant leadership is represented in my faith by Moses, a gentle soul whom G-d selected as a prophet to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Land of Israel. Moses engaged in among the most difficult political negotiations of all times.
Sometimes I wish those in public life today could see that when you embrace your work with righteous honesty and transparent respect, you lift up society rather than tear it down. You raise the level of respect, support and communal values rather than pull us down toward the lowest denominator of selfishness.
The very purpose of the celebration of Passover—the Seder dinner followed by days of matzah and lack of yeast-filled foods—is for each Jew to feel as if they themselves were freed from slavery in Egypt physically and spiritually. It is also to find our spiritual center and reconnect with our moral foundations rather than be filled with arrogance and false pride. Such an experience builds a sense of communal ownership of our quality of life and the individual responsibility that we each hold in that journey. In some ways that robust balance–between community needs and individual responsbility–is something that today’s society has seen disolve. In politics and in life.
We are so much more than what we’ve become.
I wish you a joyous and loving Pesach or Easter.
Your partner in service,
(For the record, I have personally chosen this year—as in each special session since I’ve been elected—not to collect any daily per diem during the Special Session as I feel we should be able to accomplish our workplan during the regularly scheduled time)