Because of disruptions wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, majority Democrats in the Washington House have been asked to restrain themselves and introduce no more than seven bills each during the 2021 legislative session -- and then only bills that “are urgently needed.”
Committee chairs in the House have also been instructed to limit the number of public hearings they grant and dial back the number of bills they pass out of their committees.
The requests come as the Washington Legislature prepares for an unprecedented hybrid session brought about by COVID-19 that will combine in-person and remote lawmaking, plus remote public testimony.
The guidance was discussed during a House Democratic Caucus meeting prior to the Thanksgiving holiday and then sent to members as a two-page attachment in a follow up email. The email and guidance, copies of which the public radio Northwest News Network obtained, were sent to members by Alex MacBain, chief of staff to House Democrats.
“We recognize that each member has individual authority and responsibility for developing their legislative agenda, but we will need to hold each other accountable to these limits in order to focus our work on the critical needs of our state and to avoid untenable workloads for our legislative staff,” the guidance said.
In order to help House Democrats narrow the number of bills they introduce, the guidance urges them to focus on four priority areas: racial equity, COVID-19 response, economic recovery and global climate change.
The guidance also asks lawmakers to consider whether their bills would save money, help the state attract federal funds or assist local governments with their pandemic response.
Under a section titled “Other considerations to help NARROW your list of bills for introduction,” lawmakers are prompted to consider whether their legislation has been “thoroughly vetted” by outside interest groups, whether it has a chance of passing the state Senate and, for measures that come with a price tag, if the House budget chair has indicated that there’s potential funding for the bill.
Members are also discouraged from introducing so-called omnibus measures, bills that are “likely to generate substantial opposition” and bills that create a legislative taskforce to study an issue.
“We acknowledge and appreciate the work members have engaged in over the interim on policy issues,” the guidance says. “Even if a bill is not introduced or passed into law in this next session, that work is laying the groundwork for moving policies forward consistent with our core values and the needs of our constituents.”
Advocates immediately noted the absence of any reference to K-12 education in the guidance. The state’s paramount duty is to fund education and it represents about 50 percent of the state budget.
“Our children must also be a priority for the 2021 legislative body," said Carolina Landa, a Thurston County parent who has struggled to get educational services for her autistic child during the pandemic.
Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins said education falls under the COVID-19 response, but she also acknowledged the focus on education will likely be narrower during the 2021 session.
“We’re not going to deal with all things K-12 probably,” Jinkins said. “[It’s] going to be very related to how we get kids back to school and what we do when they go back to school.”
Jinkins said the decision to limit the number of bills introduced was motivated in large part by a desire to protect legislative staff from being overwhelmed while working under less than ideal circumstances.
“It’s really important that we look out for staff and not ask them to draft things that are never going to be heard,” Jinkins said.
On average, House members introduce 12 bills a session, according to research done by the House administration. Jinkins said there was no “exact science” behind asking members to limit themselves to seven bills, other than it’s less than the average. She also said that so far no one has complained “bitterly” to her about the cap.
Democrats hold 57 of the House’s 98 seats.
The House Democrats’ guidance won’t apply to minority Republicans. House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox said he doesn’t intend to issue similar guidelines to his members.
“It’s a member’s right to introduce the bills that they want to introduce and it’s the majority’s right to hear the bills that they choose,” Wilcox said.
Despite the self-imposed restrictions, House Democrats are still likely to pursue ambitious and controversial legislation in 2021. For instance, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, the chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee, said he will try again to pass a “clean fuels” standard championed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Fitzgibbon also said the Legislature may once again consider measures to place a price on carbon emissions.
But Fitzgibbon acknowledged the hybrid session is likely to put a crimp on lawmaking and will force committee chairs to be more selective.
“The remote session will reduce the number of bills that we can get through the process,” Fitzgibbon said. “What I don’t know yet, and I don’t think anyone knows, is how much will it reduce the throughput.”
Another Democratic chair, Roger Goodman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he’s already begun warning House members to avoid introducing bills through his committee that cost a lot of money or are highly partisan. He’s limiting himself as well.
“I’ve got a whole lot of proposals that are just going to wait because they’re too expensive, too controversial and the groundwork hasn’t been done,” Goodman said, giving the example of an asset forfeiture bill he’s been working on.
Goodman's focus this year will be on enacting police reform measures.
In the Washington Senate, which has half the House’s 98 members, Democratic Majority Leader Andy Billig said he doesn’t intend to put a specific limit on the number of bills his members can introduce.
But Billig anticipates the volume of bills and votes in 2021 will be 50 percent of normal because of the pandemic-forced modifications.
“Legislation that addresses our on-going health emergency and helps all Washingtonians and our economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic will be our highest priorities,” Billig said in a statement.