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.