This really gets my goat

Posted: May 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The making of law, like the making of sausage, is said to be necessarily messy. I'm not so sure. Not all sausages are equal. Neither are laws. Or lawmakers. Some are less disgusting than others.

As a reprieve from the behavior of our representatives in Washington, D.C., I often turn my attention to the states of the union, where government sometimes shines, if dimly. But politicians are politicians, and the desire to rule forever raises its ugly head everywhere. Recently, Florida has been getting my goat. So, for further reprieve, I turn my head to the other corner of the continent, to Washington, the state.

Washington's a strange place. Its geography is amazingly diverse, from the fjords of Puget Sound to the rugged mountains of the Cascades; from wet, mossy, ferny, conifer rain forests in the northwest to scrub deserts in the southeast; from the still-active Mt. St. Helens volcano to . . . the federal government's Hanford nuclear waste dump, leaking radioactive matter into the mighty Columbia.

There's a rivalry between Washington and its neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washingtonians labor under a sales tax but resist an income tax, while Oregonians do just the opposite. Oregonians pride themselves on things like the country's first bottle deposit-and-return law. But every time such a bill comes up before the citizens of Washington, they vote it down. By increasing margins. There's much to be said in favor of the Washingtonian as a political animal.

Right now, however, the state is instructive for mirroring the much larger government housing itself in a city of the same name nestled near the continent's opposite shore. In Washington, D.C., there exists a government pretty much united under one party, the Republicans. In Washington, the state, there's another united government, but under Democrats. The two governments are very similar in their desire to spend, spend, spend. But a basic difference shows through: in the state, they are busy raising taxes; in the federal enclave, they prefer to pay for increased spending by increasing debt. Between these two examples, we see the Scylla and the Charybdis of modern politics. One monster or the other.

There's a further parallel. While the U.S. Senate contemplates "the nuclear option" ? that is, getting rid of the filibuster, which would allow Republicans to appoint judges unencumbered by their opposition ? Washington state's legislature recently overthrew a 1993 citizen-enacted law requiring a two-thirds supermajority of legislators to raise taxes. For the next two years, the Democrats will have their self-given right to raise taxes by a mere majority, Republicans be damned. The Democrats are jubilant. And very sure of themselves. "This is one of the most productive sessions in state history," enthused the state's Speaker of the House, Frank Chopp.

Of course, no chopping was done. Instead, lots of new laws, regulations, and spending found their way onto the state's books. And as the populace reels from rising gas prices, the Democrats thought it appropriate to add further injury: they raised taxes on gasoline. The only repeal I could find in the reports was the repeal of the supermajority-in-case-of-taxes requirement.

Washington has long had an initiative and referendum process. But the voters are not allowed to change their state's Constitution directly, by initiative. This defect allowed the state's high court to cheat Washington voters of the term limits they had passed in 1992, and is obvious in the way the current session ran roughshod over Washington citizens' expressed wishes. Democrats gutted 1993's Initiative 601 supermajority tax limit law with gusto, glee, and impunity.

In this form of representative government, representation is not a description but a title of nobility. Washington's citizens are generally skeptical of their representatives and aimed to curb them where it counts: at the taxing power. But the current politicians are united . . . against their own constituents.

That's not how the Democrats see it, of course. I'm sure they see themselves as serving the higher good of the benighted voters. The Republicans, being as gelded as the Democrats are at the federal level, have the ideal opportunity to pose as sticklers to principles. (One wonders how they'd do if they were in the majority. Why, just look at the national level for an inkling.)

Not everything Washington's legislators did was horrible, of course. They voted in the orca, or killer whale, as the state's "official marine mammal." Otter and seal enthusiasts had to eat their disgruntlement. Considering that orcas eat the seals that are killing off what's left of the plummeting salmon runs, this political move was perhaps more than mere symbolism; it was symbolism with a point.

Besides, orcas are pretty cool; great markings.

But there was more important animal news to come out of the state's recent legislative session. The goat was placed on the official list of livestock. Prior to this, we are told, stealing a prize goat didn't amount to much of a crime. Joseph Wheeler, a prosecuting attorney in Thurston County, explained that, before that law passed, "if someone were to steal a $1,600 goat, they'd spend zero to 90 days in jail. With this law, they'd get at least three to nine months, assuming that they have no criminal history."

So, this is the kind of thing legislators should be doing, no? Cleaning up laws, making sure everything makes sense. Goats should surely be treated like pigs, and cattle, and mules.

But still, I wonder. Shouldn't the law be written ? or, in common law, understood ? in such a way that a farm animal treated by its owner as livestock, and regarded by customers and other farmers in the market as livestock, be treated, at law, as livestock? Do we really need a legislature to handle this kind of clean up?

What's wrong here?

I'm no Blackstone or Pound or Hart or Oliver Wendell Holmes, but I suspect it's something basic. A hundred years of legislative overkill and overlawyering has disabled our legal system. Judges and juries should have the sense to make this kind of recategorization. A goat treated as livestock is livestock.

And yet, that doesn't appear to be the case. It required legislation.

Presumably, in the next session, the legislature will take time to upgrade the alpaca's legal status.

Another farm animal comes to mind as relevant: the horse, as in horse sense. That's what the modern legal system seems to lack. Common sense should rule, but as I often note in my Common Sense e-letter, everyday horse sense is as rare in our courts and legislatures as a stinky mule at a DAR tea party. Instead, we get ordinance following law following ruling following slippery argumentation, in an unending spiral of deliberate over-complexity. That's how a republic slip-slides away, by a government of lawyers rather than a government of laws reasonably made and reasonably interpreted.

And in Washington State, as in Washington, D.C., the ways of government crunch along, in the familiar ruts. Yes, the taxpayers are treated as little more than cash cows. There is no reprieve. And, you guessed it ? the triumph of certain land and sea mammals notwithstanding ? this really does get my goat.