Oregon high schoolers may soon have to learn about their government. So today, I offer a primer on what goes on behind the scenes … the stuff that might not show up in textbooks.
The Oregon Senate overwhelmingly passed SB 513, adding a one-semester class in civics to the requirements for earning a high school diploma. The bill would take effect in the 2025-26 school year.
The Legislature is more than halfway through its 160-day session – Friday is the 88th day – and the civics requirement is likely to become law, now that House Democrats and Republicans have reached agreement on how the session will proceed. The chief sponsors of SB 513 are Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons and Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.
During the floor debate, senators pointed to Americans’ dismal lack of awareness about how government works. Legislators experience that lack of understanding firsthand. Constituents frequently contact them about matters that actually are the purview of federal, county or city governments and school districts.
Still, there is a vast difference between the basics of government as recounted in textbooks and what really goes on. Here are lessons from the Oregon Senate, as well as the House:
Oratory doesn’t matter: Legislators spend considerable time making floor speeches. Although they please supporters and make good material for campaign ads, rarely do they change anyone’s mind.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, acknowledged that rarity in explaining why he voted for SB 16, sponsored by Sens. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Bill Hansell, R-Athena. The bill gives Malheur County more flexibility in converting farmland to housing. It barely passed the Senate 16-12, with most Democrats voting no.
“I voted differently after hearing the floor debate than I thought I would going in; that’s rarer in the legislature than it probably should be,” Golden told constituents.
Results are determined beforehand: Bills generally don’t reach the Senate or House floor unless they have sufficient votes for passage. That is one reason why a bill that handily passes in one chamber might disappear in the other chamber.
It was another rarity when the Senate rejected a mandate that vehicles have their headlights or running lights on during daylight travel. This is a concept that Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, has tried before. His SB 166 failed 13-16, in part because some senators were unfamiliar with it.
Golden again: “Hearing about this kind of bill for the first time on the Senate floor almost never happens. Usually the sponsor will flag it for the Majority Office and Democrats will meet ahead of time for discussion and a vote count. As the carrier (Beyer) started explaining the bill I saw more than a couple of Senators looking as surprised as I felt.”
The public must talk fast: The Legislature’s budget writers – the Joint Committee on Ways and Means – is conducting a virtual state budget hearing for residents in each of Oregon’s five congressional districts. At the first two-hour hearing, on Wednesday evening, testimony was strictly limited to 2 minutes per person and legislators were not permitted to ask questions.
I have no idea how legislators will absorb all the spoken and written testimony. Every comment – each appeal for money – sounded the same, regardless of content.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, apologized that there wasn’t time to hear from all who asked to testify. A co-chair of Ways & Means, she said there’s never enough time in these budget hearings.
Among the 2021-23 budget details, the Legislature plans to divvy up $780 million from the latest federal pandemic relief package. Oregon’s 30 senators submitted more than 300 requests for how they’d like the money spent. Their ideas added up to $5 billion. The 60 state representatives submitted more than 900 requests, totaling $30 billion.
Legislators get rewarded: The Oregon Capitol is closed to the public. Committee meetings are conducted via videoconference. The Senate – and the House until recently – meets only a few days each week for in-person floor sessions.
Thus, many legislators have fewer travel and related expenses. But they still get the same per diem. Through March, almost every legislator had received more than $11,000 in per diem this year. One exception is Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who collected less than $7,000.
Being a legislator in Oregon is supposed to be a part-time gig; however, many dedicated lawmakers put in fulltime hours, or more.
Seven days a week, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, produces an excellent pandemic newsletter that pulls together local, state and national information, along with his legislative insights. Dembrow also is among the legislators who spend considerable time with work groups that bring together disparate interests in hopes of developing consensus legislation.
Ballotpedia reports that half of the U.S. states, including Oregon, have so-called hybrid legislature; that is, lawmakers report working at least two-third time. Oregon’s $31,200 annual salary is below average for such hybrid legislatures. Democrat-sponsored bills to increase that have not advanced so far this year.
Headlines tell only part of the story: On a 18-12 party-line vote, the Senate passed SB 483 to protect workers from retaliation if they report a workplace safety violation to Oregon OSHA.
Afterward, Senate Democrats sent a press release headlined, “Senate Democrats Protect Workers Against Retaliation for Reporting Wrongful Conduct.”
Senate Republicans responded with, “Senate Democrats Look to Overturn Principles of Fairness in the Workplace, Pass 'Guilty Until Proven Innocent' Legislation.”
Most legislative work is bipartisan: For example, Sens. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Lew Frederick, D-Portland, co-sponsored Senate Bill 458 to increase housing opportunities. It passed 25-4 with two Democrats and two Republicans voting no.
In the House, Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, did not hold her regular media availability on Monday, but her staff issued these statistics: Of the 115 bills that the House had voted on, 70 passed unanimously and 12 had only one dissenter. Nine times that dissenter was a Republican and three times a Democrat. Unlike the Senate, which is moving faster, no bill passed a pure party-line vote.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, which is why House Republicans – until an agreement was reached Wednesday night – were slowing the legislative process so as to stall the Democrats’ agenda. Republicans were refusing to suspend the rule that bills must be read aloud word-by-word before a floor vote.
Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, explained why in a newspaper op-ed: “While most bills will have bipartisan consensus like the budget, there are still about 10% of the proposals that are partisan, and I believe could make life far worse for Oregonians. This bipartisanship is something Oregonians can be proud of but unfortunately the media does not often report on this important fact.
“The media constantly reports on the 10% or so of the bills that are controversial. When one party is in a majority or even more a supermajority, those 10% can be very contentious. I am asked often by my colleagues from across the aisle why we won't suspend the rules when what we are voting on is not controversial. It is precisely the 10% that creates the need for a way to ‘slow down the process.’”