Our childish legislature

Russell Sadler

An all-nighter in Salem. The longer it goes on, the longer the Legislature resembles high school.

In the writhing death rattle of the expiring legislative session lawmakers passed a bill creating the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature. This 30-member commission is to study ways of improving “the body's administration, procedures, facilities, staffing and overall capacity.”

It is a futile task. The Legislature’s problem is not organization. The Legislature's problem is immaturity.

We have spawned a generation that does not understand what it means to govern. Ideological lawmakers know what they know and cannot get along with anyone who differs. They are only interested in getting their own way. If a process prevents it they change the process rather than accept its results. They behave like spoiled, indulged children.

There is no other way to explain the complete breakdown of the Legislature in the last decade. It has become completely dysfunctional. Its members cannot get along with one another. Governors -- former legislators themselves from a better era -- have to be called in to mediate impasses that perpetuate the session and prevent adjournment. Lawmakers are incapable of constructive compromise.

If the joint House-Senate budget process isn’t going the way House Speaker Karen Minnis wants it to go, she simply orders House members not to meet with their Senate counterparts. Then she threatens to refuse to pass a budget until the Senate capitulates. The Senate capitulates because it is the only responsible alternative left. This is not governing. It is a tantrum.

In the meantime hundreds of Oregon school districts are about to start fall term with no idea how much money they will have for this school year. No superintendent or school board can manage their enterprise under these conditions.

How else you you explain the disgraceful handling of an simple extension of the North Bend Airport runway with lottery-backed bonds by “Majority Leader” Wayne Scott, R-Canby? The Legislature routinely helps Oregon communities extend runways to promote commercial airline traffic and the economic development that commerce attracts.

But Scott deliberately held up the bill because Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, voted for a floor vote on an education funding bill the Republican leadership did not want. This is not ‘hardball” politics. It is playground bullying.

But Minnis and Scott should not take the rap for this immaturity alone. The abuse of the Legislative process began in the early 1990s when Rep. Larry Campbell was Speaker of the House. Campbell unilaterally repealed one of the Legislature’s most important unwritten rules. For most of the post-World War II era it was considered unethical to ask a legislator to vote against his constituents or his conscience. Party loyalty was limited to procedural issues. If a lawmaker willing engaged in vote trading that was another matter, but the leadership was not to force lawmakers to vote against constituents or conscience with threats of reprisals. Campbell quietly declared those rules “no longer operative” and the bullying began.

The fundamental problem with the Legislature is that lawmakers do not represent their constituents anymore. They represent the people who contribute to their campaigns. Scott and Minnis have accepted contributions from national Republican and self-described conservative organizations. These organizations expect Minnis and Scott to deliver local expressions of their national agenda in exchange for their money.

If legislators are unwilling to vote for these policies they are bullied, cajoled and threatened with primary opponents by the “leadership.” That is what happened to former Rep. Lane Shetterly, R-Dallas, in the last session when he objected to the “borrow-and-spend” practices of the Republican leadership and supported a surtax to balance the state budget. Shetterly decided not to run in the next election rather than face retaliation from Minnis and Scott. Shetterly now heads the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

There are some structural issues that bedevil the Legislature. Constitutional initiatives passed in the last decade allow voters to approve spending vast sums of money -- on prisons, for example -- without raising any money to pay for them. The Legislature is no longer in control of the public purse strings. The Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature might address this structural issue.

But the growing dysfunction of the Legislature and the growing abuse of the legislative process is the result of “leaders” who do not respect the institution or its process. If the process threatens to deliver unwanted results, they simply thwart the process. That is not leadership. It is a caricature of schoolyard sandbox politics.

It will not end until voters replace such “leaders” with more mature, more responsible people.

“The fault, dear Brutus,” wrote William Shakespeare in a remarkably similar context, “is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

  • Rep. Peter Buckley (unverified)

    Mr. Sadler, you hit many nails right on their heads. We can adjust the logistics of the legislative session in a dozen different ways, but unless there is a revival of representative democracy, progress will continue to be blocked.

    At present, the House is neither representative nor democratic--the agenda of two or three GOP "leaders" is the only agenda allowed. Debate is routinely stifled, and GOP members who dare to question, let along cast a dissenting vote, are immediately punished. The combination of arrogance and incompetence is proving to be a disaster for the state. We have had the two longest sessions in history under the current GOP "leadership," with such paltry results that the entire institution is being called into question.

    We are capable of so much more, and we deserve so much more. It could be true that this kind of arrogance results from any party being in power for too long. All I can say is that the GOP has obviously held power too long in the House, and a Democratic majority in 2007 will go a long, long way to making progress in our state again. In fact, it is the only way I can see the legislature moving forward again in a manner that actually addresses the needs of the people of Oregon.

  • Christopher Nicholson (unverified)

    You're dead on. From what I've heard and read about Oregon politics in previous years, there was always a level of decorum and bipartisanship that ensured that "doing the people's business" was most important. I can respect the fact that our legislative leaders are simply trying to do the job their parties have chosen them to do. The result is that slowly, parties will become so competitive that in order to play "fair", both sides must play "hardball".

    Obviously, having leadership of some sort makes it easier to set an agenda and get things done. However, I'm not so sure that there aren't reforms we could pass that would make our legislature behave better.

    First off, and I'm just going to throw this out there regardless of how dumb it makes me look, why not elect the speaker of the House and President of the Senate as nonpartisan statewide offices. That way, regardless of who was in power, there'd be a non-partisan legislative leader who could make sure that the people's business got done.

    Secondly, and I know a lot of you hate this idea but it's one of my favorites, why not use a top two open primary system, like OneBallot is proposing. That way, parties would have less control over primary challenges and people would be elected based on the nature of the district. Races in very conservative districts would be between a conservative candidate and a slightly less conservative one, and races in liberal districts would be between a liberal candidate and a slightly less liberal one. Look at how well the system worked for the mayor's race in San Francisco, pitting a green party candidate against a Democrat, who ended up winning because he got the support of the Republicans (who, while I'm sure they didn't like the Democrat, were horrified at the thought of a Green mayor).

    I know, I know, it takes away control from the parties, but hey, that might not be so bad, considering what party influence is causing our legislators to do.

    Finally, and this is just because I'll pitch voting reform any time if given half a chance, we could elect our legislators in multi-member districts using a ranked voting system like the Single Transferable Vote. Allowing people to support partisan candidates and not waste their votes while at the same time choosing the level of partisanship they want in their first, second, third, and so on picks would let moderates support moderates, liberals support liberals, and conservatives support conservatives, and some of each would get elected.

    STV tends to actually promote partisanship, so it would not have the extreme moderating influence that an open primary would have, but at the same time, it would give power to the voters to choose the leaders they wanted, and take power away from the parties. At the same time, it would promote positive campaigns, as to win in STV, you not only need to get your supporters to rank you first, but you need other candidates' supporters to rank you second, third and so on. It's worked really well at Reed since we instituted it last semester, and it has made our elections fairer.

    So yea, there are problems with the legislature, but there are also solutions. Lets talk about the latter.

  • Christopher Nicholson (unverified)

    Rep. Buckley: The GOP has held the house for 8 legislative sessions. Previous to that, the Democrats were in control for 12 sessions. The Democrats hit a registration peak in around 1976 with around 61% of the vote (as best I can read this graph) Since then, the Democrats have been losing voters to the GOP ever since. As of June, the Democrats held a paltry 55,000 vote registration edge in state with just over two million voters. That's only 2.7%.

    There's a much more serious problem, which will not be fixed just by the Democrats gaining control back in the house. In fact, I'd venture a guess that the declining registration edge might have something to do with the only thing which has remained constant over the last twenty-three years, the party of the Governorship. I'm not going to bash Democratic leaders, but I will say that the Governor is usually a much more influential and well-known politician than any legislative leader. I would venture a guess that if we had a strong Democratic Governor, you might see more people registering as Democrat.

    Now, I'll be the first to say that voter registration levels probably have less to do with our state leadership, and more to do with national trends. I can't find any good data, but I'd venture a guess that nationally, Democrats have declined in registration percentage since 1976.

    However, there are a few things we can do. First off, there's always the possibility of an initiative banning Republicans from entering the state. I know there might be some constitutional problems with that, but we've get Lawrence Tribe to come help us out.

    On a more serious note, we need to be smarter, and plan for the future. It's my belief that in 20 years, the most important issue dividing the parties will be Technology and its regulation. Right now, an Organization of almost all the major computer companies in the US is implementing a rather powerful paradigm shift in the nature of computers.

    Trusted computing will allow the manufacturers of data to control what is done with their product. Imagine if the producers of certain foods, say, tomatoes, could prevent you from putting the ones you've rightfully purchased in your Cuisinart, because they wanted you to buy salsa from them. That technology, which will let the authors of data control where it goes and what it's used for, is being built into 20 million PC's this year. It has a lot of positive benefits in terms of being able to verify and trust what's being done on someone else's machine, but it also takes away people's ability to go beyond doing only what the individuals who hold the keys envision.

    My point of that long paragraph is that technology is here, and its quickly becoming a very powerful tool and very serious issue. Broadband Internet is basically a necessity for leading a productive, technologically involved life, and it's becoming especially important for kids. Check out this report, Connected to the future for more info. We can be the party that pushes for greater access to technology, that takes America from being 16 in the world in Broadband Internet connectivity to being first. (See this article for more) I know Democrats don't like handing money to big companies, but why not subsidize Broadband Internet connections through Comcast and Qwest, for low income households?

    So in conclusion, don't just tell me you want a Democratic majority in the house again. Tell me you're going to move beyond the traditional paradigm and make real progress. Tell me you'll use technology to improve education, health care, and overall living standards. Tell me you'll think smarter, and look for creative solutions of all kinds, in order to achieve your goals. Then, I think people might consider giving Democrats the majority again.

  • LT (unverified)

    I support the nonpartisan idea because I think it may be the only way to end "our caucus has decided on a number" budgets and "you are a caucus target candidate, therefore you will follow orders and not question whether caucus strategy will actually win in your district" campaigning.

    Someone told me that Doyle was not a target last year because "they looked at the ratio of Rs to Ds". Oh, and "the fastest growing party is no party at all" voters registered outside the major parties don't count?

    I have been a fan of Russell since before meeting him almost 3 decades ago. But this is one of the best columns in a long time. I doubt many House members realize the jokes about the Senate being the mature body and the House being the childish, juvenile body.

    But that is how we should approach the next election--looking for adult behavior as much as where they stand on issues. All those folks who say Ferrioli was a pleasant surprise and Kate Brown a disappointment were not saying they are adopting the Republican platform. They are just saying an open and above board leader who allows members freedom of conscience and expression, builds positive coalitions wherever possible, is able to converse with ordinary folks and change his vote based on public input is the kind of person they'd like to see more of in politics.

    As I told Ted F. one of the last days of the session, I grew up in a Republican party where civilized debate and open process were valued. If he can lead the Republicans back to a time when we can have serious issue debates rather than games and stunts, more power to him.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    Time to tell Rep. Mark Hass, and the all the girlz, that he is IRRELEVANT.

    We got seven or eight hs grads running things in Salem, according to front page of Oregonian, leaving 90% of lawmakers out in the lobby, on their knees, bowing before their God -- Gucci Gulch lobbyists.

    The payback will be biblical, Mark and friends. Hang on.

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    Russell and Rep. Buckley,

    I welcome additional attention to this problem, but I sincerely hope we approach these questions with a clear eye to how Oregon used to function, how Oregon does function, and how Oregon has changed over the past quarter century. And, finally, how the nation's politics may have changed.

    I fear that there are grand answers being bandied about when we don't even know the question. Recall just a decade ago that term limits were going to be the solution to our legislative maladies? Recall just a decade previously, when at the Federal level, campaign finance reform (FECA) and the opening up of the legislative process was going to cure Congress's problems?

    Recall this: for most of the postwar era, the Democratic party was the operating majority party in most of the country but simultaneously had to contend with deep divisions within its own ranks (over race and foreign policy).

    The consequence was that the Democratic party had to rule as a party of compromise and consensus, because it was the only way to possibly pass legislation.

    I don't think anyone wants to go back to a time when the national Democratic party purposely straddled the race issue. However, the decision of the party to become the pro Civil Rights party has led almost directly to national Republican dominance today. And it has meant that both parties have become, ideologically, much more homogeneous than they used to be.

    The positives? You know what you are voting for when you vote for a Democrat or a Republican. The negatives? Politics in legislatures is much more divisive than it was a quarter century ago.

    So when we long for the non-confrontational politics of, say, Tom McCall (in Oregon) or Mike Mansfield (nationally), just remember that you are also longing for a time when people charged that both parties were bland, heterogeneous, undisciplined, and impossible to tell apart.

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    My brief advice to both the legislative commission and the City Club committee studying this problem: institutions are complicated things, and what seems like simple problems (e.g. eliminate parties in the legislature, then partisanship disappears) seldom works out that way.

    I've volunteered to testify before the City Club committee and I extend the same to the Legislature's committee. Please don't rush into major reforms without examining the potential unintended impact of the changes.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I also think Russell has hit the nail on the head.

    However, in spite of what Christopher Nicholson wrote, I don't think Russell pointed out strongly enough that the Republicans have been the party of partisanship, the party of blockage and obstruction, and the party of power tripping against the people of Oregon.

    Every change in the Legislature towards the path of strict party loyalty enforced by punishment has had someone with an "R" behind their name. From my District Lynn Lundquist was set to be the Speaker of the House and restore civil discourse to the Legislature even if it meant at times compromise with Democrats. Not tolerating that point of view, for the first and only time I know of Lynn Snodgrass came over the Cascades to find a Republican to run against Lundquist. Then a campaign of false allegations started - a lie that Lundquist underpaid workers being one of them - until the new person won his seat. And of course, Snodgrass became Speaker. Republicans will even kill other Republicans to hold onto the power of partisanship.

    What really needs to happen is to understand what goes on and then take the further step to action of exposing to voters what these Republicans are doing. They may well be immature as Russell points out, but the uninformed elect them.

  • LT (unverified)

    Something to add to what Steve said. Lundquist was an excellent Speaker, and his wife working in his office had a level of charm and graciousness not seen since. I doubt my Republican state rep. understood that there were many of us who didn't approve of the "coup" she was a part of whereby a private meeting shortly after the election unceremoniusly dumped Lundquist back to being an ordinary legislator. Snodgrass became the first Speaker I ever heard announce that there needn't be a public debate on the level of school funding because "our caucus has decided on a number" and how dare anyone say otherwise.

    Paul, Institutions may indeed be complex things, but they are run by individuals. We have seen in the last 2 sessions that the Senate has gone from a body where someone thought it a good way to make a point to put a ceramic pig on his desk and say he would raise taxes "when pigs fly" but how dare anyone ask him what specific cuts he favored to being the mature adult branch of the legislature.

    There does need to be some attention to the way ballot measures that don't pay for themselves affect the budget.

    But this legislature did avoid one pitfall. They didn't make the Measure 50 mistake. We have the double majority because the legislative session after Measure 47 was passed made it a high priority to pass a fix, but didn't much care about the details.

    This session, the Senate passed 1037 B, the House got all the way up to 1037D, but in the last hours/days that was allowed to die. Maybe some legislators were smart enough to know (or still smarting from the 20 mph school speed zone fiasco) that they didn't want to pass something few people understood and then start hearing about it back home in the district a couple months from now when the details became apparent. No, there is no fix from this session for Measure 37. Which leaves us time to debate possible fixes. If the word "transferability" was in the text of the measure, why weren't we hearing "it is right here on P. --- about half way down"? And if it wasn't in the text of the measure, weren't the Measure 37 folks trying to pull a fast one?

    I still think the big issues are candidate quality and local control. If the caucus alone chooses all candidates for open seats, why should local citizens bother to vote for someone chosen for them? If a local school board member or other local elected official, or someone with decades of ties to their neighborhood, or active in their neighborhood assoc. or Grange or Chamber of Commerce runs for office with a campaign suited to the district instead of what a consultant tells them to do, we could see a major change in the House.

    Many districts have lots of people who don't register with major parties (my Republican state rep. won by about 6000 votes and there are about 8000 NAV in the district)and the last time I checked, their votes count just like anyone else's votes. The task is to run an intelligent local campaign which catches their interest, not just the latest fashion from some consultant.

    For anyone interested, go to StatesmanJournal.com and look for the legislative coverage and the editorial about the legislature in the Sunday paper. They were asking for a list of winners and losers from ordinary folks.

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    The House seems to run by a cult these days. Honest, principled, thoughtful, beholden-to-none members of the House concerned are clearly an endangered species. Spotted Owl tee-shirts will be delivered to those few members of the House who have not joined the cult....... personally signed by Russell Sadler.

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    The House seems to run by a cult these days. Honest, principled, thoughtful, beholden-to-none members of the House are clearly an endangered species. Spotted Owl tee-shirts will be delivered to those few members of the House who have not joined the cult....... personally signed by Russell Sadler.

  • Gregor (unverified)

    Zom-Bushes everywhere! Oregon was once the state of rugged individualists. We seem to have lost that legacy. The policy of the Republicans appears to be strong arm everything that one can and never relent. Why are Democrats keeping their hand out as if the Republicans would welcome it? Clearly, time and again the 21st Century Republican Party has shown that they are not interested. Shame on those who are party to their undemocratic and arrogant ways.

  • Lynn Porter (unverified)

    The Senate is "the mature adult branch of the legislature?" Then how come, with a Democrat majority plus the Governor's veto, they can't stand up to the Republicans? Every time the legislature meets Human Services takes another cut. Democrats seem to have no vision to sell to the voters, on either the state level or nationally, so why should I bother to vote for them? Your problem is a lot bigger than the way the legislature is run. The most important issue in this country is increasing inequality, and I don't hear Democrats speaking to that issue. Try learning how to fight and be less "adult."

  • Terry (unverified)

    Oh, come on, Steve Bucknum. How do you expect party loyalists to act other than partisan? The root word of partisan, let me remind you, is "party", as in Democratic PARTY!

    It's time to quit whining about how mean and ruthless those R's can be, and start electing Democrats with the principles, the cajones, and the legislative smarts to use their 18-12 Senate majority to accomplish something for the people of this state.

    You can start by admitting that the Democratic leadership of the state Senate --Courtney and Brown-- was taken to school by the Republicans in the House.

    That's got to change if anything else is to change.

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    Might as well join the chorus here at the outset: great post. It's interesting that everyone agrees on the diagnosis, but the prescription isn't so clear.

    Russell notes that: "The fundamental problem with the Legislature is that lawmakers do not represent their constituents anymore."

    I think this is largely true, but the causes for it are obscure and the solutions more so. Constituents neither have a clue what's going on in Salem nor care. Part of the problem may be the loss of public squares where these issues are discussed among neighbors, certainly part of it is a disinterested press (especially local news, who almost never talk legislation), part of it is the prevalence of sound-bite TV campaigns, and part of it is the constituents themselves--for reasons I can't understand. The short snappy answer is that the constituents could solve the problem by holding their reps responsible, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.

    Paul was onto deeper diagnosis when he wrote: "However, the decision of the party to become the pro Civil Rights party has led almost directly to national Republican dominance today."

    I'd add two other, related elements. The Dems also created a platform for the GOP when they supported the Supreme Court rulings in Engel v. Vitale and the far more famous Roe. The Supremes formalized the role of God in the classroom (none), and then called abortion a privacy right. Both of these alienated a core constituency of Democrats--poor Christians. In the intervening years, God has played a major role in politics and mammon far less. The thing that held the Democratic coalition together was always money, and the thing holding the GOP coaltion together now is God (or as folks say outside the church, "values").

    Making politics a religious issue has had an enormously detrimental effect on civic action. For a large part of the GOP base, politics is now a zero-sum game, with eternal damnation as the reprecussion for a wrong choice. It's been hard to motivate a coalition against that, and mostly Dems haven't tried. But as the historical party of morality, they could certainly look back to mid-century and before to see how to govern without excluding God.

  • David Deyo (unverified)

    Well put, Mr. Sadler. Although I've not been following the budget debates closely, I have been witness to the "legislate by tantrum" tactics in the House, especially those of Speaker Minnis. Sadly, we can expect more of the same until the politicians learn that there is a price to pay for abuse of office and the legislative office to force personal agendas down the throat of the citizens. I'm for making an object lesson of Karen Minnis. No matter the office she seeks next, we need to target her with dollars and volunteer effort to her opposition. She needs to be thrown out of office at the next earliest opportunity.

    When the people show they will clean House, the pols cannot afford this kind of tantrum leadership.

    I've posted an open letter to Karen Minnis on my journal regarding the abuses over SB1000.


  • Jim (unverified)
    <h2>Speaking of the legislature, has anyone else noticed what our lawmakers have been wearing lately? While watching the session on public TV recently I was appalled to see legislators wearing Hawaiian shirts, sweats, and blue jeans. I don't have anything against casual cloting, but is it too much to ask a state legislator to wear a suit and tie?</h2>

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