The Oregon State Legislature: Virtual Engagement versus Physical Involvement

by Conrad Henkel

The general concepts and procedures of a legislative assembly are mostly common to the average American citizen. Elected representatives gather for a certain period of time every year and bring forth new laws and amendments that govern commerce, public education, private relations, and many other aspects of society. As provided by the US Constitution, each citizen has a voice in their national and state government. State legislatures in America function in similar manners, but until recently, some have been more transparent than others

In 2001 Oregon’s 71st legislative assembly was publicly broadcasted on the Internet. One local newspaper reported that it was a “big technology first,” and endorsed the concept even though the quality of the broadcast was “hit or miss[1].” And while Oregon was not a pioneer in the web-broadcast arena, it was the first time in history that Oregonians were granted the opportunity to observe their lawmakers from afar. Surprisingly, a television channel dedicated to the Oregon State Legislature was not created until 2007[2].

What does this mean for the aforementioned “average American citizen”? In general terms, said citizen is now able to consume political news without the helpful editing of a news agency. Instead of a catch-line that describes a partisan fight on the Senate Chamber floor (“Politicians Duke it Out over Health Care”), one is now able to see how the argument was actually proctored (“Would the Gentlelady of the 10th District Bring Forth Evidence to Support her Unproven Opinion”).

  1. Thesis Statement

The goal of this paper is to analyze the qualities of a legislative gathering, specifically the rules of conduct that demand a legislator to follow certain courtesies and ways of speech. The legislature will be analyzed with the use of scholarly material, but also with direct viewing of Oregon Senate sessions archived on the Internet. Hopefully the reader will gain a better understanding of how and why the legislative assembly operates and if that affects the legislative process. In the statements of this paper the reader will probably be surprised by the candor of some Oregon politicians; their choice of words and the backdrop of rules that sometimes limit, but more often than not allow, a wide lane of expression. This research paper will argue that it is a good system.

  1. Background
  2. The Structure of the Oregon State Legislature

The Oregon State Legislature is a bicameral body, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Oregon elects 60 Representatives every 2 years and 30 Senators every 4 years[3]. Each assembly has their own internal leadership, logistics support, committees, and sessions. The first assembly gathered in 1845 and has met 78 times since. Current rules dictate that the assembly shall convene in February and not run longer than 160 days in odd-numbered years and 35 days in even-numbered years.

The third body of the Oregon State Legislature is the Executive Branch, which is controlled by the Governor. Unlike the leadership in the House and Senate, each power-politician in this branch is elected by the people[4]. Oregon State Citizens can utilize this branch, along with the Legislative Assembly, to enact new laws or to make amendments to previous laws in the Oregon Constitution.

  1. How a Bill Becomes Law

The Oregon Constitution provides for 3 methods to enact a law or amendment. Under their own impetus, or at the request of a constituent, an elected State Representative or State Senator can propose an idea for a law to the Legislative Assembly. This idea is than put into legal terms by a non-partisan legal counsel, and then sent to the respective chamber for a “first reading.” The President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House (depending on where the bill is introduced) assigns the bill to a legislative committee. A bill concerning veteran’s issues would probably go to the Veteran’s Committee, a gas-tax would probably go the Transportation Committee, and so forth.

The sub-committee then sets forth with the intent on hearing public debate about the proposed bill and adding or subtracting any clauses that raise concern. Then the bill is sent back to the respective chamber for a “second reading.” Lawmakers are allowed time to analyze the bill and then make a final vote on its passage at the “third reading.”  Each chamber creates their own bills, but a law cannot be enacted without the approval of both chambers and the Executive Office.

  1. The Political Composition of the 78th Assembly

The 78th Oregon State Legislature is currently controlled by the Democratic Party. Both the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Executive Office are chaired by a Democrat. While most spectators of Oregon politics will comment that there is a greater political divide in urban versus rural politics, the party divide is clear during chamber hearings. In the House and Senate are caucuses for each major political party (the Democratic Party and the Republican Party).  Each party meets before and after a chamber session to discuss bills that were voted on or bills that will be voted on. A consensus is generally made (or at least proposed) in a caucus meeting, although voting purely along party lines is not required (or encouraged).

  1. Explanation of the Formal Rules of the Assembly

Like many other state assemblies across the nation, the Oregon Legislature uses “Mason’s Manual” for parliamentary procedures[5]. According to the National Conference on State Legislators, it is the “only parliamentary manual designed specifically for state legislators[6].” The first edition of this text was written in 1935 by a Californian state politician, Paul Mason, but has since been edited for modern day politics. This document, along with the Oregon State Constitution, defines how the assembly operates.

Mason’s Manual advises “No one is to speak impertinently, or beside the question, superfluously, or tediously” and “No person may use indecent language with reference to the body or its members[7]”. Further clarification of decorum is located in the Senate Manual, which is issued to every Senator at the beginning of the session. One excerpt reads “A member may refer to the actions of a committee if such actions are relevant to the debate, but a member shall not impugn the motives of another Senate or House member’s vote or argument[8].”

  1. The Character of the Oregon State Senate

Understanding the structure of the Oregon assembly and having discussed the players and the rules that control them, we move on to real examples that showcase the character of the Oregon assembly. As discussed previously, all of this can be done by the reader through the innovative efforts of the IT Department at the State Capital. House and Senate committee and general assembly meetings can be accessed via the annotated link[9].

  1. Structure of an Assembly Meeting
  2. Senate President Calls the Session
  3. Clerk Calls the Roll
  4. Courtesies
  5. Remonstrances
  6. Messages from the Governor, House, and Senate Committees
  7. Propositions and Motions
  8. Action of Executive Appointments Requiring Senate Confirmation Votes
  9. First/ Second/ Third Reading of Senate Measures
  10. First/ Second/ Third Readings of House Measures
  11. Other Business of the Senate
  12. Announcements

The most informal stage of an assembly meeting is the apportionment of time for “courtesies.” This is where politicians will announce their guests that are currently in the chamber. These can be interns, visiting high-school sports teams, or any other such guests. An example of this will be given later.

  1. Layout of Senate Floor

It is interesting to note that the Senators are not organized by political party, and therefore the much-heard line from the national Congress (“I would like to reach out to my colleague on the other side of the aisle”) is never spoken in the Oregon Legislature.

  1. Rules of Address

Oregon State Legislators are required by their own rules of conduct to not address each other directly on the chamber floor. A legislator has the option of either addressing another legislator through the Senate President, or by referring to another legislator by their “preferred address.” While some legislators have a simple address (“The Senator from District 13”), others are more colorful (“The Senator from The Heart of the Valley”).

  1. The Politician with the Goat Joke

An interesting example of the unexpected language that occurs in the Oregon Legislature comes from the April 7th meeting of the 2015 session. A transcript follows below, taken from the “courtesies” section of the video posted online[10]:

Senate President:  “Congratulations on being the Dairy Princess Ambassador, we hope you have a great day here. I want to talk to you later about milking a goat, I need help learning how to milk a goat because I am frankly tired of being beaten by a certain State Senator on the floor. I know there is a difference between a cow and a goat, so I don’t want to make a mistake here, but I know they both give us milk. Good job, congratulations, it is an honour and a privilege to have you here, and I do need your help later on.” [Introduces next speaker].

Senator: Thank you mister President, I thought I’d help you with the milking of the goat. It usually helps if you milk the female goat. [Audible laughter].

  1. Discussion

It should be noted that the exchange transcribed above does not reflect the attitude and character of every member of the Senate. The Oregon State Senate is a well-functioning legislative body that operates in a professional, albeit sometimes humorous, manner. There was also no evidence found which points to a disagreement between these two Senators, or that a personal disagreement is being carried out via a public process. So far in the 2015 session (current to 18 April 2015) the Senate President has been the chief sponsor of 5 bills that have already became law. Of those 5 bills, the Senator who made the previously transcribed joke only voted in opposition to the Senate President one time.

In addition to the insight mentioned above, a conservative internet blogger[11] reminds us that the jokester-Senator has continuously been a “comic relief” to tense sessions as far back as 2008. When commenting on a House bill related to lightbulbs that was carried during the 2008 emergency session, the Senator asked “How many legislators does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently 90[12]!”

  1. Ivory Debate

This example differs with the previous in that the unexpected language is not a joke, but an accusation. On 4/28/2015 Senate Bill 913 was brought to the floor for a final reading. This bill outlawed the exchange or possession of items that were made up of at least 20% ivory. Besides the argument of animal protection, it was also brought forth that terrorist groups receive large amounts of money from the ivory trade. Below is a transcript taken from this session.[13]

Senator: In your opening on the measure you indicated that a no vote on this bill would be supporting terrorists. Which terrorists were you referring to?

Carrier of the Bill: Senator it is well documented that Al-Qaida, among others, profit from these kinds of transactions. In fact some of the poachers have links to Al-Qaida.

Senator: I believe that that goes to the issue of, a no vote on this bill is a vote for terrorism. I think that impugns our members, because I hear people have different reasons for voting no on this bill that have nothing to do with supporting terrorists. So I think that is an impugnation to the character of the members who will vote no on this bill.

  1. Discussion

The official guidelines of the 78th Oregon Legislative Assembly[14] state, as mentioned above, that a member “shall not impugn the motives of another Senate or House member’s vote or argument.” Merriam-Webster defines impugn as a verb to “to dispute the truth, validity, or honesty of (a statement or motive); call into question. In other words, civility is paramount.

It was addressed to the Senate President that “impugnment” had occurred, but the bill carrier later responded that his words had been “twisted” to make such a claim. The matter was then dropped and further questions were asked about the bill without accusations of incivility.

  1. Charles Mahtesian and the Sick Legislature System

Charles Mahtesian in a 1997 article describes the Minnesota State Legislature, which was a pioneer in its time for televising their legislature sessions. Mahtesian makes a surprising conclusion that the televising of assembly meetings had no bearing on the character of the legislature[15]. To form this conclusion he compares the character and successfulness of the technology-lacking Tennessee state legislature with that of Minnesota in 1996. He states: “By last fall, all sense of collegiality had vanished from the Minnesota House” and “If the Minnesota legislature is the state of the art, there must be something wrong with the art.”

Based on the transcripts of various Oregon Senate sessions, one might think that Oregon suffers from the “Sick Legislature Syndrome.” The reality, however, is much different. The candor and character of the 78th legislative session is jovial, respectful, and seldom bothered by acidic comments or public attacks. Legislators in this session adhere to the rules discussed in the previous section, but this is perhaps not translated well in the digital broadcast. In the next section I will bring forth the opinions of a current Senator on this issue.

  1. An Insider’s Perspective

It is nearly impossible to understand the true intentions of the transcriptions listed above without an “insider’s perspective” to the matter. For example, a casual viewer of the Oregon State Senate might think that the “Goat Joke” referenced something much more graphic and inappropriate, than what was intended. To understand the situation, one must take two features of the Oregon State Legislature into account.

Firstly, for the last 15 years the Oregon Legislature has participated in a goat-milking competition at the Oregon State Fair. The Senate President, who represents the district in which the fairgrounds are contained, has had some notorious failures in this competition. A 2013 Statesman’s Journal article reported that the President was only able to milk .1 ounces of milk in 60 seconds, while another Senator had managed to milk 15.9 ounces[16] in the same amount of time.  According to the newspaper, the winner “plans to put his ribbon on display in his Capitol office, and he’ll also likely taunt his victory over his fellow legislators in the upcoming session.” And in this lies part of the impetus for the joke.

The other part of the “Goat Joke” that some people may need clarification is the fact that both female and male goats have the potential to be “milked.” And even though there is some anatomy shared between the two genders that allows both to be milked, the female goat is obviously the gender which is used. In other words, the joke was a dig at the Senate President’s farming skills, not a dig at sexual indecency.

The goal of this satire, as described by one Senator, is to bring “humanity” into the debate. Sometimes the Senate floor teeters on the verge of collapse due to high tensions and low levels of patience. These jokes are made with the intention to keep issues from “boiling over on the floor,” as was almost the case described in the “Ivory Debate.” This, unlike the “Goat Joke,” does not have a comical backstory.

The “Ivory Debate” is an example of a legislature that has become overrun with work. The Oregon Legislature used to meet only every two years, allowing disputes and arguments to cool down and wash away. Now, however, the situation has changed. Although the official guidelines mandate that the Oregon legislature must complete an abbreviated session every-other year, the legislature has the option of meeting for a full 160 days. And this has been the trend in recent years. As stated above, this is why some Senators employing more and more jokes on the Senate floor. Sometimes it is the only way to defuse a tense situation.

  1. Conclusion

Is the “character” of the Oregon Assembly detrimental to the process of legislating? Having seen the process in person, I think the answer is unequivocally no. Virtual engagement is an excellent way to connect a citizen with their legislative body, but there are problems inherent in this unique tool. The true character of the Oregon State Legislature could be easily misconstrued because of the lack of understanding in the comments made on the closed-circuit recording. The viewer does not know to the back-story to comments made, has no perspective to the discussions that happened before or after the debate, and most likely does not have any exposure to the procedural rules that govern a legislative session. Notwithstanding this fact, I believe that this tool should be utilized and its use encouraged.

[1] Lerten, Ben. “Welcome to Your E-Legislature: Oregon Breaks New Ground.” Bend Bugle, 08 Jan 2001. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/ljKdmT

[2] Democrat Herald. “Oregon Channel to Show Legislature in Action.” Albany Democrat Herald, 06 Jan 2007. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/xhCJWI

[3] Oregon Secretary of State. “Oregon Blue Book.” Legislative Administration, 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/64yyWb

[4] Clucas, Richard A., Mark Henkels, and Brent Steel. Oregon Politics and Government: Progressives versus Conservative Populists. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2005. Print.

[5] Oregon Legislature. “Legislative Glossary.” No date. Web. 10 May 2015. https://goo.gl/B7nNcs

[6] National Conference of State Legislators. “Using Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure.” 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/0ZTGeA

[7] Mason, Paul. Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. Rev. ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Pub. 1989. Print.

[8] Brocker, Lori. “Excerpts from 78th Oregon Legislative Assembly Rules of the Senate.” 2 Jan 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. https://goo.gl/OsiZ1q

[9] Oregon State Senate Legislature Video: https://goo.gl/hrsdnc

[10] Senate Chamber Convenes 04/07/2015 10:30 AM. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/ARZCdt

[11] Williams, Jason. “Senator Fred Girod Adds Comic Relief to Tense Session.” Oregon Catalyst. 12 Feb 2008. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/2kKd78

[12] Oregon State Senate Archives (2 Aug 2008). Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/KqAIxI

[13] Senate Chamber Convenes 04/28/2015 10:30 AM. Web. 10 May 2015. http://goo.gl/LZBcd3

[14] Brocker, Lori. “Excerpts from 78th Oregon Legislative Assembly Rules of the Senate.” 2 Jan 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. https://goo.gl/OsiZ1q

[15] Mahtesian, Charles. “The Sick Legislature System.” Governing Magazine Volume 11 (February 1997): 16-20.

[16] Staver, Anna. “Squeezing out a Win: Legislators Compete in Goat Milking Event at Fair.” Squeezing out a Win: Legislators Compete in Goat Milking Event at Fair. Statesman Journal, 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 May 2015.

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