Shaken and stirred

Cracked walls and cramped quarters energize legislators.

Shared disaster, they say, brings people together. It certainly has brought the members and staff of the 57th Washington State Legislature together, literally as well as spiritually. Exiled from their stately chambers in the quake-damaged Capitol Building, the House and Senate are convening cheek by jowl in modest-sized hearing rooms in their respective office buildings. Legislators whose offices were in the Capitol are double-bunking with party colleagues or roosting in former staff offices, while displaced staff have to make do with any horizontal surface available.

All the rest rooms and half the elevators in the Cherberg Building are out of service. Visits to the Capitol to retrieve forgotten but essential stuff are limited to 15 minutes and require an appointment, a hard hat, and supervision by the sergeant at arms. In many offices, great cracks rend the plaster from floor to ceiling. No matter, work goes on.

It appears to be going on a good deal more expeditiously than before. Back in January, legislative leaders of both parties produced a lot of pious prose about the urgency of the issues facing them this session, but hardly a week had passed before the leisurely habits of the place reasserted themselves: interminable tributes to departed and deceased legislators, breaks in business to go out to the rotunda to honor veterans of the Civil War and listen to the Nespelem Junior High Boy's Band play "Hello, Dolly," press conferences to announce constituent-pleasing bills with no more chance of passage than a state income tax.

The session schedule was already tightening up before the quake as the deadline for passing bills out of committee approached at the end of February. But the shake-up and the subsequent displacements and inconveniences seem at last to have produced something resembling urgency. Last week the halls of both house office buildings were continuously pervaded with the amplified drone of legislative business being done: moved, seconded, passed, or discarded.

Part of the sense of accelerated pace is probably due to a temporary dearth of manufactured mass public input. For the time being at least, people have more important things to do than lease buses to drive to Olympia and hector legislators. They will soon be back, surely, as will the locust hordes of professional lobbyists usually abuzz in the now eerily lonely marble halls outside the hearing rooms. But the abilities of both to waste legislators' time will be severely compromised. The House and Senate are meeting in rooms too small even to accommodate their own members comfortably, so the number of spots available to glowering or beaming auditors will necessarily continue to be strictly rationed.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the organized buzz of activity is that it's taking place at all. Everybody's computer is working, everybody's phone, too, and when you dial a number, you get the person you expected to get, even though nobody's sitting in their customary office. When you heat up your Web browser to search the current status of a bill you're interested in, chances are very good you'll find what you're looking for, though over a thousand bills are presently in play. The people in the Legislative Service Center who worked so hard to accomplish all this deserve more than just a hearty round of applause; perhaps their bosses will grant them the right to bargain collectively the next time the issue arises.

The current sense of agreeable urgency can't last, of course. If the Legislature and governor are permitted to return to the Capitol Building, the familiar quarters will invite reversion to old bad habits. If, as seems more likely, the Capitol remains indefinitely off-limits, the charms of cohabiting at close quarters will rapidly fade. Anyway, by next week the ugly realities of crafting a state budget will be bearing down on the troops, a sure sower of partisan discord. A lot of hard work has been going on behind the scenes between parties in both houses, but the financial wounds are opening faster than Band-Aids can be slapped over them. The rest of the session is going to be a brute, any way you look at it; in retrospect, Quake Day may look like an agreeable diversion.

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