Under the Dome

by Ann Mary Quarandillo

Bill Becomes a Bill Illustration
Illustration by Drew Christie ’07

It’s been a long, hard, wonderful, exciting and grueling day.

She’s been awake since 5:00 this morning, knowing the voters are waking up, knowing many of the votes have been cast, knowing there’s a full day of work left to be sure every single vote is in. She and her family huddle in a side room, hearing the cheers and groans from the party next door, carefully monitoring the vote counts, waiting.

He’s been on the phone, it seems, for the past four weeks, when he’s not giving speeches, meeting voters, appearing on talk shows, debating opponents. The media never gave him a shot, but it’s turned into a neck and neck race. He’s in the middle of the gathering, drawing strength from the crowd, monitoring the vote counts, waiting.

They win! Now what?

For most new legislators, now is the time for a crash course, not only in how a bill becomes a law, but in how a bill becomes a bill. At the same time, they’re hiring legislative assistants, arranging offices, meeting with constituents, and for most new Washington state legislators, figuring out how to navigate downtown Olympia.

It’s daunting, but there are a number of offices (and a number of Evergreen alumni) whose work it is to keep the Legislature moving and make sure senators and representatives have what they need to do their work.

During the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, when Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman proposed the “Great Compromise” establishing a bicameral legislature, the idea was to ensure fair representation by population while maintaining the power of individual states. At the same time, the idea of legislation being heard by a great many voices ensured that more people have input on lawmaking, which would minimize the chances of unjust or questionable laws being passed. Combining that with a separate executive branch with veto power indicates that the framers intended to create a government where passing a law was difficult.

Barbara Baker ’82, Chief Clerk of the Washington State House of Representatives, knows that can be frustrating for voters. But, she says, “it shouldn’t be easy to pass a law – it should be fairly difficult and lots of people should agree on it.” Writing legislation requires precision, attention to detail, an intimate understanding of existing laws and a clear understanding of the proposed policy solution.

Baker should know—she’s spent the past five years overseeing the daily operations of the House, accountable to the leadership of both parties to make sure it runs “efficiently, orderly and fairly.” A legal aid attorney for many years, then a legislative liaison, she spent 11 years with the House Democratic Caucus, including seven as the policy director, before being elected Clerk by the full membership of the House. She is familiar with the challenges legislators face, especially because in Washington’s citizens’ legislature, most of them have other full-time jobs.

“We respect the members of the legislature very deeply, and our professional staff is here to support them,” she says. “It’s not an easy job. During session, 80-hour weeks are common. It takes a lot of work from a lot of people to support a legislator so he or she can be successful.”

A big part of legislative success comes from proposing and passing bills into law. “Legislators are looking for problems to solve,” explains Eric Lohnes, a research analyst for the Washington State Senate Republican Caucus, who is working on his master’s in public administration degree at Evergreen. “Many they hear from constituents or are self-generated, but lots of legislation also starts from news, or from state reports from different divisions which highlight problems and possible solutions. Legislators can champion the resolution of those problems.”

Barbara Baker
Barbara Baker, Chief Clerk, Washington House of Representatives in the House Chamber. Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

Both the House and Senate have nonpartisan offices to help legislators turn their ideas into laws. The Office of Program Research (OPR) provides year around staff support to the committees of the House, and their nonpartisan staff of attorneys and research analysts perform a variety of tasks including policy and fiscal analysis, legal counsel, bill and amendment drafting, and clerical support. Senate Committee Services fills the same role for the Senate.

Eric Lohnes
Eric Lohnes, research analyst, Washington
State Senate Republican Caucus. Photos by
Shauna Bittle ’98.

Ken Conte MPA ’82, OPR’s director and a member of Evergreen’s first master of public administration class, says a key part of his job is ensuring that his office serves all the legislators equally, and his staff take pride in their role as institutional experts in the various subject areas lawmakers need. “Our staff stays out of the politics. Every staff member hired must be approved by a bipartisan committee with equal representation from both parties,” he explains. After researching and working with the legislator, OPR staff turn to drafting the actual bills, and continue to work with legislators on rewrites, amendments and corrections. “The ideas for bills come from so many different sources—it’s all over the map and it’s always exciting to research different areas,” Conte says. “It’s one of the most fun jobs you can have around here.”

But the reality of working in government is that although many people can agree on the problems, there are multiple, and often conflicting, solutions to those problems, which often split along party lines. Caucus staff on both sides of the aisle work closely with legislators to develop strategies for creating bills that actually have a chance of making it through the process to become laws, and making sure they have the information they need to decide on legislation as it goes through the process.

“Once a bill has been drafted, then legislators need to look at the broad ramifications of what they’re proposing,” explains Jamila Thomas-Roberts ’98, chief of staff for Washington’s House Democratic Caucus. “We look at each bill from a practical perspective—how something might work in another state but might not work in Washington, whether there are similar bills being filed by other members, or even if the proposed bill will actually solve the problem they’re trying to fix.”

A second-generation Greener (her father, Timothy Thomas ’88, graduated from Evergreen’s Tacoma program), Thomas-Roberts began working with the legislature while she was a student, where she got her first exposure to politics and policy, and how they work together. She was Gov. Gary Locke’s policy advisor on labor and workplace issues, and served as a policy analyst for the House Democratic Caucus before taking on the chief role in 2010. That experience helps her coordinate the policy, communications and legislative staff working together to shepherd bills through the committee process. “We work to keep legislators informed— both on what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear—so they can decide how to vote on legislation,” Thomas-Roberts explains.

Jamila Thomas-Roberts
Jamila Thomas-Roberts, Chief of Staff, Washington House Democratic Caucus. Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

Legislators have so many voices competing for attention, it’s critical for the staff to help sift through the tons of information that crosses their desks each day. “We’re all here to serve the members, and to make sure when they need something, we’re able to deliver it,” says Lohnes, who has worked as a policy analyst in both business and nonprofit organizations, and came to the caucus after serving as senior economic policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation in Olympia. “But there’s a difference between the perfect policy and what can actually pass and be signed by the governor. It’s always a challenge to get the best policy that has a chance to make it through. We analyze ideas from a policy perspective, looking at costs and benefits—what benefits are accrued to society and to individuals because of this? It’s really satisfying to be in the caucus because I can actually affect policy here.”

Once the bill is written and the legislator introduces it, Thomas- Roberts’ staff, along with Caucus staff on the Republican side, keep a close eye on the bills as they make it through the process —first, while a committee studies and reports on it; then when the Rules Committee decides whether the bill will be brought to the floor for debate and amendment; then to a third reading for an actual vote. “We work with our legislators to figure out their top priorities, chart them out, and help move them forward,” she says. “We help them develop relationships with other members of the caucus, and encourage them to talk with their Republican colleagues and get their views. We do everything we can to give them guidance throughout the process—we’re here to help them succeed.” Of course, once a bill passes one house, it goes through the same procedure in the other house, and the process starts over again. Both the House and Senate must agree before a law goes to the governor for signature.

For new legislators, navigating the constantly evolving processes can be daunting. The Chief Clerk’s office runs five days of training for new House members and more for their staff, and Baker reminds them they are working for the public, and should act accordingly. “It’s not easy trying to live up to campaign promises,” she says. “The ship turns very slowly and big changes take a number of years. Just figuring out how the place works is difficult. Many of them have been involved in other levels of governance so they have some idea, but most are walking around shell-shocked for a few weeks. Two years (the House term of office) is a short time to learn how to get something done, so we work hard to be a resource for them.”

One of the biggest challenges for newly elected members, says Conte, is that the election happens just before session starts. “We immediately reach out to the members—personally and by mail, to remind them that session’s going to come up quickly, and that if there are issues they need research on to let us know. If they have promises they made or things they want to do as a legislator, my staff can be doing that research right after the election so they can be ready with bills to introduce when session starts.”

It’s easy to see a problem and say “there ought to be a law!” Looking simply at election campaigns, the job looks like a glamorous round of events and TV shows. But, Thomas-Roberts reminds them, “The campaign side is the flashy side. If you want to be an effective legislator, you have to do the work, and really think about what you want to accomplish here. You can’t wait for someone else. Figure out what is important for you and your district and we’ll help you get there.” Successful legislators put in the work, get the information, and build good working relationships both with staff and other legislators.

At the same time, effective legislators have a passion for what they do, and Baker hopes they follow that passion. “People who want to run for office—God bless ’em, we need more of them! We need more people who are really invested in government, who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to get involved on the legislative side, and I’m as supportive as possible to those who want to run. It’s supposed to be a part-time job—it’s not. You can’t not be here—when you’re not here it’s on your mind.”

Ken Conte
Ken Conte, director, Washington Office of Program Research. Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

“This is not just theoretical work—what we do here has an impact on people’s every day lives,” says Thomas-Roberts. “We need to do what’s right for the citizens of the state. I keep hold of that principle and do my best to never lose sight of that.”