Duin: Do what I say, not what I do

T.A. Barnhart

We can always count on Steve Duin to provide the holier-than-thou viewpoint from the local media. Duin, who sits on a privileged perch at the Oregonian with no one to stand in the way of his words other than a (very limited) editor and a spellchecker, demands that the Oregon Democrats in the Legislature hold open caucuses or prove that "they don't (care much for transparency)". (Not sure why he put in those parentheses; (kind of odd).) Open caucuses sound good but, given that running government is necessarily a political operation, it's not a very bright practice. There were political reasons most of us voted D and not R, after all.

Perhaps we should ask Duin and other Oregonian writers to provide the drafts of their columns and articles; it's the equivalent of what he's demanding. As a writer, however, I'm pretty sure Duin won't want to. For example, in the above paragraph — and I am writing my first draft here, so all of this may change — I typed in the word "stupid" at one point and then deleted it because it was unnecessarily hostile. But I did think it and I did type it; the word "stupid" was part of my process towards a final draft. One member of my caucus thought Duin's idea was stupid, but the other members — the ones who understand civility and my ability to make my point more effectively by not calling Steve names — convinced my rogue caucus member to withdraw the word before we left the room. But if I follow Duin's logic, in the name of transparency, I should keep that word, even though it was removed almost immediately.

At the heart of Duin's objection to closed caucuses, apart from a weak argument that meeting in public rooms requires all meetings be open, is that politicizing the Legislature is an icky thing. [More transparency: there are a lot of unnecessarily negative words and phrases going through my mind at this point, and I'm not writing any of them down. But I am thinking them.] Apparently Duin thinks there's not only no room for politics in the Legislature also thinks it's completely unnecessary in 2007:

But in the upcoming session, the Democrats rule the roost. They control the House, the Senate and the governor's office. This is a game of footsie, not football. The cone — or is that a conspiracy? — of silence isn't necessary.

Conspiracy? How about the Oregonian's conspiracy to hide the "real" thoughts of its writers? Where are the drafts? The emails sharing rumors and leads? Where are the tapes of meetings between editors and writers, the sessions with name-calling and profanities as they agree on what stories to follow? Where are the promises made by the sales department to various customers (oh yes, we know they make those promises)? Where are the phone logs? These are people who won't even turn on the comments in their blogs! The Big O is the state's paper of record, so to speak, but the vast majority of its work is done in secret, hidden forever from the public view. Underneath a cone — or is that a conspiracy? — of silence.

And they want to know what Merkley says to his colleagues as they try to figure out how best to develop working compromises with Republicans. What is it they want to know? Do they really want to hear all the stupid ideas that get tossed out into the open and then tossed out in the trash? The great thing about privacy is you can say idiotic things without having to feel like an idiot. Let's face it: Most of what goes through most of our heads is pretty dopey; there's little that we think that we'd want published in our local paper. But now and then, in private with people we can trust, we can say these things and either go "Holy crap, that sounds really dumb out loud, doesn't it?" or be told "Holy crap, buddy, that's a really dumb idea." Either way, they ability to speak openly and have an honest dialog among colleagues is enhanced by the freedom of knowing your humiliation will not leave the room.

In the end, what we care about is not all the conversations but the outcomes. I don't hear anyone demanding to know what representatives whisper to one another on the floor, but it's done on the public dime, just like the caucuses; should they not speak at all times into tape recorders? The bottom line is that we want to know what they decide, and we want to see the Legislature as a whole behave responsibly. A caucus is a strategy group, not a policy-making group. The results of the caucus's work — strategy or policy options — will become public property very quickly. I seriously doubt 31 politicians with 31 differing perspectives are going to come up with a secret plan to sneak legislation through the House — and that all 31 will keep this terrible secret. What the caucuses decide will be public very quickly — as will the justifications. (And let's be honest: how politicians justify their actions shift anyway, depending on who they are speaking to. Open caucuses won't change that one damn bit.)

With closed caucuses, we may never know why plans A through G were dumped, but I'm willing to bet large portions of Steve Duin's not-insubstantial paychaeck that it's probably because they were either very bad plans or politically untenable. We will know about Plan H, however, the one the caucus agrees to pursue; and that's the only plan I care about. I care about the plan the caucus will seek to enact as law. I don't care if Phil Barnhart stood up in the caucus to argue that Plan D would crush the Republicans forever and is a brilliant, glorious plan; I don't care if the other 30 members of the caucus told Rep Barnhart "Shut up, Phil, that's just dopey". If Rep Barnhart does go power-mad and vindictive, we won't need to sneak into the caucus to find out. We'll learn soon enough. What I do care about is what legislation he presents on the floor and the arguments he makes there and in committee. That's the real public business, not the brainstorming or temporary backroom bickering.

We're not talking about either the right-to-privacy or a need-to-know here. We're talking about good government. Transparency does not mean knowing every word spoken by every member of government. If Jeff Merkley stops by the Governor's office, do we have to have a microphone on the desk so we can listen to their chat? At some point, people have to speak in confidence with one another. We all need the security to be stupid; we all need the space to learn why our latest brilliant idea would violate a dozen laws, ruin our credit and embarrass our families.

Anne Lamott, in her brilliant book on writing "Bird by Bird", has the perfect phrase for the initial phase of writing: "shitty first drafts" —

The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

As far as I'm concerned, a closed caucus is a shitty first draft. I think of the rest of us as the editor or proofreader, the ones who get the second and third or fifteenth drafts. I want to see something substantial. I want to know what kind of results to expect. If the caucus is planning to overthrow government or violate laws or be really mean to the other guys, I have no doubt someone will rat them out. I voted for Sara Gelser because I trust her. Each member of each caucus has the trust of thousands of constituents and thousands of citizens across the state (I also trust Rep Barnhart, no relation unless very distantly). I have zero evidence Rep Gelser or her colleagues are people not to trust with a small amount of privacy. I want this Legislature to deliver good product. I can tolerate not knowing if Phil Barnhart talks crazy at times as long as his work outside the caucus is honest, open and productive.

When Steve Duin is ready to give up his privacy in all things regarding his work, then he can ask the same of others. After all, he has the privilege of both a rare platform from which to speak and rights protected by two constitutions. He asks us to trust him, that what he and his colleagues learn from protected sources, privately and secretly, is trustworthy. If I'm willing to give the press that level of trust — and I am, until they violate it, which Steve has not — he can give it to the legislative caucuses. After all, they are both doing the people's business. He just gets to be more snarky about it.

  • abc (unverified)

    Here, here.

  • abc (unverified)

    Whoops. Stupid first draft.

    Hear, hear!

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    Actually, I think this is exactly like their editorial board meetings. To their credit (and apparently, under pressure from the members), they disclosed what happened in their gubernatorial endorsement process.

    But that was a strong departure from usual practice. Opening up caucus meetings is a lot like opening up the editorial board meetings.

    So, whaddya say Oregonian, ready to open up the editorial board? A little transparency? A little accountability?

  • stussy (unverified)

    How about a law that mandates the Democrats' earn a supermajority in a statewide election whenever they have a choice - ie, brown bag lunch or eating out at a restauarant; if they should wipe their ass with their left or right hand; or if they should drive the SUV or honda civic to work.

    That sounds good - we need transparency. I'm sure it won't make government less efficient, either...

  • Teddie-K (unverified)

    Oregonian's next endorsement:

    Bush for Presdient, 2008!

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    Requiring the caucuses to hold open sessions would be more like holding them to the standard that exists for all other elected officials and public bodies under the Oregon Public Meetings law.

    In my view, it's reasonable to hold public officials to a different standard than editorial boards -- though some boards, such as the Statesman-Journal have very transparent editorial processes as they relate to candidate endorsements and so on.

    The legislature does too much of its business in secret. The late session budget negotiations between a half dozen legislators at the end of the last session should be totally unacceptable to all Oregonians.

    I'm glad that Dave Hunt, Kate Brown, and others have pledged to provide 72-hour notification for committee meetings, and I'm also glad that Brown has committed to not repeating the secret negotiations of the last session. Duin needs to give credit where credit is due.

    Having said that, I am also glad that Duin and other newspapers are holding our legislators feet to the fire a bit on opening the caucus meetings. The only rationales I can think of for not holding open caucus meetings are partisan, not public-interested, in nature.

    I don't think that Duin is motivated by personal piety, nor a holier than thou attitude, so much as he is motivated by wanting to see the people's business conducted in the open.

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    But are caucus meetings the people's business, Sal? I say they aren't--they are partisan strategy sessions in which they decide HOW to do the people's business. A jury is doing the people's business too, but we aren't privy to the making of the sausage, just the result.

    It's not unreasonable for Duin to bring it up, but I don't think it's a necessary part of transparency. Votes are public, floor debate is public--but deciding what bill to present when, in what form, and at what time are partisan decisions, IMO. We have an established partisan system of representation; let's not pretend it doesn't exist.

  • Anonymous (unverified)

    This is one of the main reasons why I no longer read the Oregonian and why friends of mine either won't subscribe to it or have canceled their subscriptions.

    The Oregonian's editorial staff has been on the wrong side of more issues than not. They are ironically more conservative than you'd expect not only for Portland, but for our state. Not to mention that their articles are written at the 8th grade level. They do not cater to many reader's needs.

    They also believe because "they are the only game in town" that they can say and do whatever they wish. In a way, they can, but not without consequences. Frankly, Portland and Oregon can do much better than the Oregonian provides.

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    You can make the same case for a meeting between a quorum of county commissioners or city councillors who happen to be of the same political party. They're still required to follow the public meetings law.

    I don't see how this is all that different, and I suspect that there are more than a few members in both Democratic caucuses who agree with me on that.

    I agree that we have a partisan system of representation. And yes, I can think of partisan reasons for supporting closed caucus meetings. I just can't think of any public-interested reasons for them.

    I don't feel incredibly strongly about it, I'm certainly not taking anyone to task for not agreeing with me.

    But I do think it merits a few columns by the various newspapers, if only to keep the public aware of how business is conducted in the legislature.

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    I don't think you CAN make the same case for commissions and councils, Sal. Portland's council is nonpartisan; Clackamas' may or may not be (the election results indicate they are; the commission home page makes no mention of party). But in any case, the agenda is not set by party; it's set by the chair. Any discussions in those venues are not partisan meetings; they're simply discussions taking place between members of nominally the same party.

    The legislature is different. We knowingly elect representatives (little r) within a framework of partisan control of the body. We understand that the party with the most representatives will control the agenda. And we understand that each party will attempt to work as a unit, more than a simple aggregation of votes. To that end, how they choose to select that unitary front to present publicly is a matter of strategy and focus that is developed on an entirely partisan basis. And at the end of the day, what happens in the caucus room is not determinative--the votes are.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I think you make a great argument. Case closed, in my book.

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    Sal wrote: You can make the same case for a meeting between a quorum of county commissioners or city councillors who happen to be of the same political party. They're still required to follow the public meetings law.

    The key word here, Sal, is "quorum". I would argue that yes, anytime a quorum meets - under Article IV of the state constitution, that's two-thirds of members - then it should be public. But if it's a grouping of something less than a quorum, why should it be public?

    Let's take this to the logical ends... Should any two members of the legislature having a meeting be required to keep minutes and open that meeting to the public? What about three? Seven? 14? 23? Why is 29, or 31, different? After all, 31 doesn't constitute a quorum - and thus can't transact any public business.

    Under your rules, would a non-caucus group of 31 legislators be required to meet in public?

    Keep in mind that in Clackamas County - where there are only three board members - the quorum is two. And in their case, they actually CAN'T get together in a meeting of two commissioners... because that would constitute quorum. (Not that that hasn't been subject to some controversy.)

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Sal makes a good point. The purpose of Open Meetings if to allow the public into government decision making. Whether or not a legislative quorum is defined as 50% + 1, or as 2/3, 31 House members are sufficient to make a decision, and should, under the spirit of the law, be open.

    Of course, such demands should have been made of the Republicans when they had the majority. Ha ha ha.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    The Big O is, of course, not covered under Open Meetings.

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    Kari made my point very well. thanks, Kari.

    and given the power of the Fourth Estate, that they have their own protections under the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions, perhaps they should be subject to other rules the govt is. if we think lack of reasaonable is fine for lawmakers, why not give the press minimal privacy as well?

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    Torrid, your argument is a great rationale for why Democrats should not unilaterally open their meetings. However, the partisan nature of the legislature makes it more important that caucus meetings be open, not less.

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    Can you explain why it makes it more important, Sal? I think opening the caucus meetings only hampers brokered consensus and chills debate. The public will never get to see what is hoped to be revealed; politicians will simply curb their tongues rather than reveal it.

  • abc (unverified)

    But to what ends? What supporters of open caucuses have failed to do is show why caucus meetings are different from other meetings. Just what exactly is it about a caucus meeting that makes it the public's business?

    Is it the location? If the 31 members of the House Democratic caucus met, let's say, at a campaign office rather than in the Capitol, would it still be the public's business?

    Is it the party label? Kari asked if a bipartisan group of 31 were meeting, would that be the public's business?

    Is it the stakeholder question? If I own shares of Gannett stock, do I not, by the same logic, have a right to sit in on ed board meetings at the Statesman-Journal?

    And who should be allowed in? Only the press? That doesn't seem right. All public? Would they have to let in Wayne Scott and Karen Minnis if they wanted to attend?

    It is foolhardy to think that opening caucuses solves any transparency issue. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect. Do not kid yourself into thinking that the content of an open caucus meeting will be the same as a closed caucus meeting. Members will play to the public, to the press, and stifle any comments that may be too frank or controversial. This does not advance the democratic process, nor does it force openness.

    Rather, it forces those members to hold secret meetings where they can speak openly. Basically you're arguing for a public dog and pony show to be immediately followed by clandestine sessions where the real strategizing can be done.

    Open government is a good thing. Completely open government is a contradiction of the process that has been in place in this country for more than 200 years, and it is by its very nature an impossibility.

    We should encourage good behavior by our legislators, but this unintentionally does the opposite.

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    let's also not forget: our govt is a representative democracy. that means we choose to let other people do the "people's" business on our behalf. most people don't want to do government; they are perfectly happily to let their representatives do this work (until they don't like the results, of course, at which point they are shocked -- shocked! -- at what goes on).

    if we're going to turn the work over to people to do on our behalf, we have to give them reasonable latitude to do that work. allowing the caucus to discuss their agenda and work in private is reasonable.

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    Torrid, this year our legislature will allocate $13 million in general fund revenue, and write our state's laws. I believe that the people's right to transparency of process trumps the right of political parties to keep deliberations pertaining to that process, private.

    That's especially true given the strong case you've made about the institutional role political parties play in our legislative process.

    If they open the caucus meetings, I'll probably never go. But I assume that journalists and staff for members of the other party will go. I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing if what we're really after is bipartisan cooperation.

  • LT (unverified)

    I agree with Sal.

    Maybe there should be some sort of compromise. One regularly scheduled closed caucus a day might be acceptable for the reasons stated above.

    But there are lots of legislators elected by a smaller margin than the number of Indep. voters in their district. Imagine if some of those voters come to the capitol for a floor session and see a debate interrupted in the middle for a caucus, and more than half an hour later the floor is still devoid of legislators. It strikes some as less about debating issues and airing views as described above and more about shouting and arm twisting.

    Regular discussions with the public and press conferences might help with that problem. Speaker Katz and Sen. Pres. Kitzhaber did regular press conferences and I recall those as being more open and effecient sessions than what we saw with Minnis.

    We are going to see an interesting Senate session with the Oregon caucus and the 2 partisan caucuses.

  • Don Smith (unverified)

    I agree with Sal that the public has a right to know what the dealings of our government are, but unfortunately, as has been noted, when the back-room deal is outlawed, they simply move to the side parlor.

    Until a leadership emerges that is interested in being transparent, no rule or regulation will make it so. The letter of the law can always be followed in a way that manages to thwart the spirit of the law.

    I implore Jeff Merkley and Peter Courtney and Kate Brown and the rest of the leadership to try to work to kill the insidious pall of lobbyist influence that currently rests over Salem.

    How do you so that? It takes guts and an Eliott Ness attitude that we can't be bought. If that makes the lobbyists come after you next cycle, so be it, but we won't be bought. We won't trade our principles for trips to Hawaii, and we're certainly going to over-report rather than under-report.

    It's an attitude, and that's (I believe) what Duin is trying to get to. Now, he IS a pompous, holier-than-thou bloviator, but what do you expect? That's his role at the paper. Just like Jonathan and Renee have their parts.

    That's just the nature of the beast.

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    We understand that the party with the most representatives will control the agenda.

    And so the argument is that setting the Legislature's --and, really, the State's agenda-- should be done behind closed doors? For strategic reasons?

    The old communists had a name for that: democratic centralism. You "debate" behind closed doors, then present a united face to the masses.

    Worked real well for the Soviet Union, huh?

  • LT (unverified)

    Frank is right. Just tonite on Lehrer News Hour there was a discussion of the leadership elections in Congress this week. Ray Suarez said he couldn't understand why people acted like it was bloody competition to have contested leadership fights. He said he was a Cold War kid who could recall the Supreme Soviet having elections where everyone put up their card to elect the leader and they all voted the same way, "worked real well for them, didn't it?".

    Today I stumbled on a column in the NY Post by J. Podhoretz on why Democrats are wise to have lots of debates because such internal debates keep a party on the straight and narrow.

    He said, Democrats interested in building on their successes need to have these kinds of fights, quarrels and power struggles. When parties fail to have these clarifying battles, they end up making the kinds of disastrous errors that helped derail the Republican reform agenda and gave Democrats running room to trounce GOP Hill hacks as they did last week.

    I submit that one of those battles is to insist that a Democratic majority do it all out in the open as much as possible. If they think they have to have some closed caucus meetings but all the rest of it is out in the open, perhaps that is an acceptable compromise.

    Seems I read in some "upcoming legislative leadership" story that Sen. Brown realizes the closed meetings last session were not good. When old line Democrats (of the long term volunteer variety) were disappointed in her last session and surprised the Sen. Republican leader was more open, that should have been a warning. Democrats should be the party of open government, not the party of "your leadership explains it all for you, don't ask questions".

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Once again, Sal has demonstrated the kind of common sense that should earn our total support for his next run at the legislature. My feeling is that open caucus meetings are not only the right thing to do, but also strategically the right thing to do.

    That said, let me open a can of worms first put on the market by Phil Keisling: open primaries. If the Keisling open primary plan, which didn't ever make the ballot, had become law, the caucus issue might be irrelevant because there would be a number of independent actors in the legislature.

  • lw (unverified)

    Poor comparison. The Oregonian is private enterprise, the Legislature is the people's government.

  • LT (unverified)

    Yea Gil!

    I think that "can of worms" is what a lot of folks would love to see.

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    in an earlier comment, $13 million should have read $13 billion.


  • lin qiao (unverified)

    I think Steve Duin must be getting cranky. He should get back to some of his juicier themes, the ones that really make him salivate, like airing his murderous fantasies under the pretense of discussing the merits of capital punishment.

  • Insider (unverified)

    I think the Causes should be open IF a majority of the body who could determine the outcome of a floor vote is in the room.

    If 1 leaves I have no problem with a closed one, though I still would prefer it open, but when the outcome of a floor vote can be debated in private I am totally against it.

  • LT (unverified)

    Insider, you have a point.

    But without the dictatorship of Minnis, maybe we will see a situation we have seen in the past when bipartisan coalitions passed important legislation.

    Historical example: women were elected in the 1970s from across the political spectrum but they all had problems in common like fair credit reporting. Prior to that session (forget which one), Oregon was behind the curve on such legislation affecting the ordinary lives of women. The House was something like 31-29, so a group of 10 members was a real power bloc. Our state rep. back then was one of those women and said "when we started getting thank you notes from Business and Professional Women's Club chapters in E. Oregon we knew we were doing the right thing".

    As I recall, Nov. 7 gave us several state reps. under the age of 35. If they banded together with like minded people of either party/ either chamber, they could pass some very interesting legislation which they might find more important than issues people their parents' age might think about.

  • (Show?)

    I'm going to pose my question again, since it seems to have gotten lost.

    If 31 members of the legislature gather, but aren't a party caucus -- but merely a group that's discussing some other issue, should that "meeting" be open to the public and on-the-record?

    What if they're not discussing anything at all, but merely happen to be at a social event? Should the presence of 31 members in a single venue constitute a public meeting - with advance notice, a record, etc.?

    <h2>What is so special about a party caucus, versus any other 31-member gathering?</h2>

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