Unpacking Government

Sometimes, politics can feel like an insiders' game. But in reality, government is open to public review. Every week, KNKX unpacks a question about how government works, particularly here in Washington state. We encourage you to ask your own questions, big or small, as we try to shed light on some of the processes that affect our lives.

Find out more about Unpacking Government now. 

Simone Alicea / KNKX

Since the election, there has been renewed interest in learning about how government works. 

Most high school students said in 2010 that they learned about civics in some form, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in the subject.

But many adults in Washington state and around the country are finding those high school government lessons difficult to remember. 

What Washington Teaches Kids

Ed Ronco / KNKX

 

Every time there’s an election, Washington voters are faced with a list of candidates for various offices. But they also usually have to decide on initiatives.

 

Since 1912, Washington state has allowed citizens to propose laws for enactment by voters, or by the Legislature. The same process gives us the referendum, which essentially lets voters have veto power over the Legislature.

 

Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

How difficult is it to remove a politician from office outside of an election? Only two United States presidents have ever been impeached and even they kept their jobs. In Washington state, while there are mechanisms for both impeachment and recall of elected officials, they are rarely used and almost never successful.

Paul Morigi / AP Images for National Museum of the American Indian

 

Protests over the last year that originated in North Dakota against the Dakota Access oil pipeline have once again highlighted the complex relationship among tribal governments and the United States. How exactly do these sovereign nations exist within the U.S.? And what does “sovereignty” even mean?

POOL / GETTY IMAGES

Our democracy limits the government’s executive branch to a largely administrative role. 

But that doesn’t stop mayors, governors, and presidents from making big campaign promises on policy. And sometimes they seek creative ways around the limitations of their office. 

Take Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Susan Walsh / AP

President Donald Trump does not always get along with the media.

The president tweeted last month that "the fake news" is the "enemy of the American people," listing the New York Times and CNN among others. Shortly after, he doubled down on those comments at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference and barred several news outlets from a White House press briefing.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo / file

Environmental impact statements are often in the news. They’re lengthy public documents that government agencies have to issue before taking actions that might cause harm to ecosystems or public health.  Most often, they’re required before permitting of major infrastructure, such as sports stadiums or export terminals.

Austin Jenkins

A hallmark of democracy is transparency, a way to see inside the government so we know what it’s up to. To that end, there’s the federal Freedom of Information Act. And in Washington state, we have something similar called the Public Records Act.

Will James / KNKX

Seattle police say the city sees about 300 demonstrations every year, but it now seems the rest of the country is following suit.

From the nationwide Women's March to spontaneous demonstrations at airports, more people are reportedly becoming more politically active by going to protests.

The First Amendment grants people the right to gather, but there are limits to that protection. 

Charles Reed / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on illegal immigration has ignited debate about civil rights, and who the government can and should deport.

But the rights of noncitizens were a messy realm of American law long before Trump's presidency.

Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

One of the most pressing questions in the debate over education funding in Washington state is about how much money should come from local school districts in the form of levies.

Voters around the state see levies on their ballots regularly, but understanding what they have to do with education can get complicated fast.

Washington state's Legislative Building, on the Capitol Campus in Olympia, was built between 1923 and 1926.
Washington State Archives

The two little boys in the photo on state Rep. Matt Manweller’s window sill are wearing capes as they play on the sidewalk outside the John L. O’Brien Building on Olympia’s Capitol campus.

“My two little superheroes,” the Ellensburg Republican says of his young sons. “They used to be a fixture here in Olympia. They would be clamoring out on the House floor, wanting to push my voting button. But now they have school.”

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

We learn in school that the three branches of government -- the legislative, the executive, and the judicial -- are designed to provide checks and balances on each other.  

To understand what that looks like, a good place to start is the Washington State Legislature, which is being held in contempt by the state Supreme Court for failing to fund basic education.