Some Practical Challenges of Citizen Involvement in the Oregon Legislature

Politicos consider the state Capitol building and the business conducted therein as normal, if not at times a bit, shall we say, colorful. To the average citizen, the imposing four story building of Modern Greek architecture with its gleaming white Danby Vermont marble, armed state troopers and interior bustling with activity (during session anyway), the experience can be intimidating. Couple that with the fact the issues dealt with are complex and far ranging, the often Byzantine nature of the legislative process can be, at least initially, bewildering. The very nature of the process itself creates an environment for minimal involvement from average citizens.

Is greater citizen involvement even positive for the process? If so, how can the process be made less intimidating and more accessible? If greater involvement is a negative, why so? Hopefully these questions peak interest in exploring what it means to “get involved” and whether average citizens should even bother.

Consider this: during an average session 3,000 bills are introduced. Practically speaking, many legislators don’t read every bill printed, but instead wait until the bill is scheduled for a public hearing. I would venture to guess that due to time and attention constraints, most read about half of the bills and roughly one third make it through the process. The bills are a mix of public agency bills, special interest projects, individual legislators’ priorities and constituent concerns, technical fixes to existing laws and budgets. As the sheer numbers alone suggest, a lot of work, both good and bad, is accomplished during a legislative session. Would increased citizen involvement help create “better” legislation or just more legislation?

Citizen access to the legislative process is crucial. Legislators, agencies, and lobbyists should be held accountable and an active and involved citizenry helps accomplish that. That being said, although access to the process should be made easy, involvement should remain a challenge. Just as lobbyists and state agencies are (unofficially) required to refine their legislative proposals and support them with data, statistics, valid arguments, etc., so should the average citizen. Legislators themselves often, although not always, act as a sieve when presented with ideas from constituents, picking the good from the bad and the valid from the outlandish (or even downright ridiculous). In that respect the process works fairly well, albeit, often at the mercy of whether individual legislators are “constituent friendly” or not. Certain hurdles need to be in place, if for no other reason than to keep the number of legislative proposals manageable.

Part of the charge of the new Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature, is the “study and evaluation of the legislature’s administration, procedures, facilities, staffing and overall capacity”¦” Although there are a lot of areas for improvement in the process for the commission to address, increased citizen involvement need not be one of them. It is my argument that an active, interested Oregonian who has identified a need for legislation and has taken the time to refine what they hope to accomplish, will find a receptive public body willing to help. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it isn’t easy for state agencies, lobbyists, organized labor or even the governor’s office when dealing with the legislative branch — but it is possible and can be very rewarding.

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Posted by at 07:02 | Posted in Iraq | 5 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Steve Schopp

    “””””The very nature of the process itself creates an environment for minimal involvement from average citizens””””

    I would add that the very nature of the legislators themselves creates an environment for minimal involvement from average citizens.

    Worse yet is the minimal impact Joe citizen has once he or she does get involved.

    It doesn’t take too many dog and pony show hearings to sour one’s view.

    “”””Is greater citizen involvement even positive for the process? “”””

    No. IMO

    It’s primarily because it is insulting not because it is intimidating.
    So what if it’s more accessible.

    If a legislative hearing comes to town and is held at a convenient time as long as conflicted and politically corrupted politicians make a mockery of the hearing it’s a total waste of everyone’s time and energy.

    When legislators use hearings to “distribute” their rhetoric and agenda versus gather input it all falls apart.
    I have witnessed some of what I believe is the most egregious use of hearings and it was disgusting.

    A very firm hand of consequences for this unethical behavior is the only answer.

    Public hearings should be reserved for the purpose of providing the opportunity for citizens to genuinely effect policy.

    Not for sleazy politicians who make decisions ahead of time and then use hearings to distribute their justification to the media while concocting an illusion of public participation.

    Two stark examples of hearings abuse were the “tax reform” hearings traveling the State (What a charade) and Vic Backlund’s education committee.
    Vic started the hearings with his declaring the purpose being to spread his information while also advising all in attendance to ignore upcoming opposing testimony.

    Consider how brazen the system must be that a chair could begin a public hearing in such a manner.

    Fortunately he has since been removed from office but his unethical behavior as committee chair was never even recognized by anyone at the Capitol or the media who have become equally unethical.

    This may seem too naysaying for the lofty politician but I’ll place my bet on my view should any public poll ever be taken.

  • From a strategic perspective, I don’t think the conservative electorate is as easily mobilized for legislative battles (or involvement) as the liberal base. I can’t say that I’ve ever come across numbers to justify that conclusion. And I would hate to rely on the old conservative stand-by … conservatives work and hence don’t have time to be involved in the day to day legislative calendar … but I do think some truth exists in that.

    So … rather than make the Legislative process more open … I really think the process needs to focus on ways for the elected officials to be more open to real world experience. Less time in hearings … Less time in DC or Salem … more time out running a small business or being involved in the communities.

    Back in ’94, before the “Contact with America”, Lamar Alexander, during his first flannel run for the Presidency, pushed a policy call “cut their pay and send them home.” The idea obviously lost a lot of traction when we won the majority but I thought the premise behind it was solid. What we need is a legislative body that is more in touch with the people. Rather than professional politicians … we need politicians that are citizens and business owners first … and legislators second.

  • Tim Lyman

    Steve and Dylan both make great points.

    Over the last thirty years we have seen the rise of a professional political class. These people have never held private sector jobs and are completely out of touch with the electroate. Their policy decisions are based on pandering to contributors and organized special interests. The ‘groupthink’ that comes from a room full of idiots who think that they are smarter than their constituents is something to behold. Dimwits who couldn’t hold down a job in a fast food restaurant telling business leaders who’ve created dozens or hundreds of jobs that they know best,

    Until and unless we purge the professional political class from elective politics and return to ‘citizen politicians’ who serve briefly and then go home, our problems will compound.

  • Harry

    Tim writes: “Until and unless we purge the professional political class from elective politics and return to ‘citizen politicians’ who serve briefly and then go home, our problems will compound.”

    And how do you suggest that we do that? And if/when we purge the dimwits (see Webster’s for a picture of Richard Devlin, Sen-D Tualatin), then who will replace them?

    I agree that smarter businessmen and women should replace the current crop, but we are the people making between $75K-$125K/yr. Can we afford to go to Salem for 6 months every other year, like the dummies or the retired rich that are there right now?

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