Activities of State Representatives

by Jennifer Anderson

The duties of State Representatives in Oregon are different depending on what they are doing. During the session they will have several things to do during their work week. They meet with constituents and lobbyists. They also respond to constituents needs through out-reach to other government office. The factors that play a role in how much attention a representative pays to a constituent is dependent on the kind legislature they are involved in and if they are in session full time. They attend committee meeting were they evaluate and pass bills to be voted on by the whole house of representatives. They also vote to pass bills into law. The state’s budget allocation has to one of the biggest duties that the legislature has during the session. They spend almost the whole session deciding where the money will go. Another function of the legislature that representatives address during the session is legislative oversight.

At home their duties depend on the representatives themselves. They might hold other offices such as school board member or they could be involved with a non-governmental organization (NGO). Oregon has only a six month session biennial and a short session on the off years so a lot of representatives have other careers that they do when not in session. They may hold town halls as a way for their constituents to come and hear what they have been doing in Salem and to answer any questions that they might have. They may also reach out to businesses in their districts to find out their need to see if they can support them. When not in session or working most representatives continue outreach in their communities, because they are ever conscious that the next election is approaching. They must be careful what they do in this area because it is illegal for them to conduct campaign business during the session on state time (Helstein 2015). It is to prevent the use of the state’s official resources for campaign and political purposes, and to try and avert corruption. The staff responds to campaign issues usually from home on their own phones, or computers as a way to avoid any conflict of interest.

At the Capital

The days of a legislator during the session are structured differently depending on the years in office the committees they are on and the appointments that they may have during the day. In some offices the day starts with a meeting to see what is on the schedule for the representatives for that day. These meeting are used to talk about whom they will be meeting with and the subject that will be discussed. The meetings are to talk about committee schedules and what bills they will hear testimony on. If the representative is planning to speak on the floor or give testimony they go over talking points and what the representative want to say. The chief of staff or legislative aid will then go and prepare a written draft for them to refer too. The representative will approve all final documents after they are drafted. It is also used to submit to committees so they can put the written testimony in with the bill information so it can be referred back to when necessary.

Constituent services are very important to legislators because constituent are the people that have elected them to office. There are several ways the constituents contact the office. They call, write, come in, or email. Constituent use emails the most now to communicate to their representatives (Helstein 2015). The representative’s staff plays a large role in helping to ease the way for the representatives. The amount of people that want to meet with a representative is impossible for them to handle on their own. The amount of information that comes in takes a few people to handle whether it comes by phone, in person, or in an email. They try to respond to all the constituents that get into contact with them in the way that they were contacted. The responses to some of the constituents concerns might be crafted by party and distributed to the members. Other times the chief of staff will create a document and have it approved by the Representative or leaders of the caucus before using it to reply to an email. Generally it is the office staffs job to address the concern of constituents unless the person wishes to speak to the representative themselves.

How involved a representative is in constituent services can depend on the four factors. The first factor is the legislator themselves and how important it is to them personally that the needs of their constituents are met. Women and minority legislators are more likely to represent districts in urban areas therefor tend to devote more of their time to constituent services when compared to their white male counterparts (Ellickson, Whistler, 2001). District characteristics are the second factor that plays a role.  Poorer urban areas with low socioeconomic groups and people tend to require more assistance from the representatives as they have more people that live in a concentrated area. Rural population areas have also shown that they require more attention from their representatives. It is because there is a closer relationship between the representative and constituents in rural areas. The third factor is institutional. The relationship between time spent on constituency services and institutional seniority is not obvious at first. It is expected that junior members would be more likely to pursue activities for their constituents than it would be first senior representatives. The reasoning is that it is easier for senior members to come by pork that it is for junior members. The size of staff also plays a key role in how much amount of time is spent on constituent services, because if they don’t have time it cannot be done. The last factor is the state level factor. Oregon is a state that as only a part-time legislature and because of it, it tends to limit the time that the legislators have to try and resolve their constituent’s problems during the session. Some legislators have district offices that they keep open when session is not in session so their constituents can still come and see them if they have any issues that they need help with.

To get an appointment with a representative can be done in two ways you can go in to the capital or you can call their office. The appointments with the representatives are offered in fifteen minute intervals. These appointments are volatile because they will be the first thing that get cancelled when the representative’s schedule changes.  If the appointment needs to be rescheduled and the representative needs to see the person because of a pressing issue that they need to address or need information they need about current legislation, they may try to fit them in to a walking appointment, which consists of walking with a representative between appointment that they have. They will also schedule appointments where the either step off the floor or out of committee to meet with someone. Most representatives’ use these appointments to learn about legislation that is introduced to the House during the session. The thought that lobbyist influence legislators cannot be further then the truth, most legislators listen to the people that come to talk to them about legislation but most representatives will vote the way they feel that law should be. It is the chief of staff will take some of the appointments from the people that the representative must miss because of rescheduling. They also will try to fill in for a representative for appointment from people that legislator’s cannot to meet with because they have other obligations, such as committees or floor. Representatives have meetings beyond meeting with lobbyist’s and constituents. Depending on how long a person has been in the house depends on what kind of meetings they must attend for party and administrative purposes. Freshman representatives attend freshman lunches and leadership meetings that help them to better know how to be an active legislator. Representatives can choose not to attend these meetings

The main job that legislators have is to propose and pass legislation. Bills start by being proposed either by a representative, senator, constituent, lobbyist, or as a bureaucratic necessity to solve a problem. Next the bills must have a legislator or committee to sponsor it. It then moves on to legislative counsel where it is drafted in to a bill. The bill then is introduced and read for the first time. Once a bill is written and it has its first reading it is summited to the speaker of the house where it is assigned to a committee that deals with the legislation. There is so much legislation that the legislators try and divide themselves up in different committees in order to divide the work load in to workable parts. The education committee for instance gets legislation that is related to schools. Once in the committee the bill can either be moved to public hearings, voted to move to a new committee if placed in the wrong spot, moved to a working group, sent back to another committee if they were sent it, they can add amendments, pass it to the floor where a full vote or the bill can go to the committee to die. If a bill has a monetary value the bill will go to the ways and means committee. The ways and means committee is the committee that controls how and where the money is spent.

Public hearings in committees are where people go to testify about legislation (Oregon State Legislator). Lobbyists are not the only ones that testify before a committee. Constituents, bureaucrats and even the legislators themselves have been known to testify for bills that they are passionate about. Public hearings are way for all sides to be heard and to educate committee members on bills that are before them (Keefe, Ogul, 1968). People sign up to testify before the committee meeting starts. During some contentious bill’s public hearings there may be multiple parties wanting to testify so public hearings may go on for days until everyone has had their say. People can also submit testimony to the committee in lieu of testifying before the committee. The representatives that are sponsors of bills generally testify or at least give testimony for them. The chair usually allows them to testify first in order for them to get back to what they are scheduled for. The representatives tend to have committee times at the same time, as other committees. The chairperson of the committee can tell people to speed up when they run a little over their time limit. Committee members use this time to ask questions of the people appearing before them, most of the time the information is relevant to the legislation and can help bring the issue into better focus.

In Oregon most legislation that will be looked at for the session has to be summited before the session starts, after the session starts a legislator only has five priority bills that they have free to which they can apply any legislation they wish to it. The priority bills are sometimes used right away especially if the representative is a freshman as they are sworn in right before the bill deadline thus not leaving enough time for the representatives to figure out what they want to do so they are left using their priority for what would have been their pre-session bills.

The caucus plays a big role in helping a legislator understand legislation according to its political perspective. All representatives attend caucuses for their respective parties. The caucus has daily meetings before the floor session in Oregon so that they can go over the bills that will be presented and voted on for the day. It is the time where representatives can ask questions about the bills that will be coming up if they have them, and they can also bring up concerns that they have about a bill. They also use the time to ask other people to sign on to bills that they may be sponsoring. Caucus only last for a half an hour on average but can go as long as an hour (Helstein 2015). Each representative at the beginning of session will be given a day to present their bills to their caucus.

How educated a representative becomes about a bill will depend on if they have anything to gain from it. If the legislator is a chair or vice chair of the committee the more likely they are to seek out information about the subject (Mooney 1991). They will also seek information if they are going to sponsor a bill. In Oregon the representatives are allowed to have at least one office staff person so they have better access for gathering and storing information legislation. The choice of how many aids a legislator has is up to them. The staffs of some legislators are related to them. They hire their children, spouses, and other relatives. Some of them also look for interns to help with the workload as they have little money in which to hire staff. All representatives are given a set amount of money in which they can use to hire staff. Hiring the best staff is important to a representative because the staff is essential in helping them decide what bills they will be supporting and what bills they will vote against.

There are two types of people that legislators approach for information about legislation insiders and outsiders. Insiders can be either staff members or the legislator’s colleagues. Outsiders are people that have little or no professional experience in the legislature and have no experience academically or with any government’s officials. In the middle of these two extreme groups lay interest groups or executive agency representatives (Mooney 1991).  They will reach out to those that can help to support the bill. Representatives talk to lobbyists that have common interests in the legislation to try and gain their insight on how they think the bill will be helpful or harmful to their causes. They reach out to the bureaucracy or businesses that might be involved or impacted by the legislation. They also do it to become better educated on a given subjects as most will give them insight on the impact it will cause them or the people they represent (Mooney 1993). Lobbyists tend to get a bad name that they do not deserve. They are often just there to educate a legislator on their clients take on the legislation. They rarely have a real influence on how the legislators vote. Lobbyists often only visit people that need the information that they are giving, or who will be influenced by what they have to say.

After the bill leaves a committee it goes to the floor of the house where they will debate it for its merits or its impact. The debate consists of each representative taking a turns giving a statement and/or asking questions to the person that is championing the bill. The debate at times can be contentious and if they opposing side does not agree with its passage they can try and prevent it from coming to the floor by filibustering it. A filibuster is a representative that after getting permission to speak by the presiding officer they continue to speak indefinitely in an effort to try and delay or prevent a final vote on the bill. A filibuster does not last long if they do not have support of others representatives because at some point they will need to leave the floor for a bathroom or to sleep.

The state’s budget is allocated by House and Senate. The part of the budget that state representatives have influence over is the discretionary spending. Discretionary spending involves the juggling of these areas such as Public Safety and Corrections, Health and Human Services, and Education. Oregon has made this problem even more complicated with the passage of measure five. Measure five was a bill that was passed that limited the amount of school taxes that the state could impose on a property in order to pay for schools at a tax of $5 per $1,000 of market value of school tax money. They also limited the general tax fund to $10 for every $1,000 of its market value (Oregon Department of Revenue (2)). To compound things even further Oregon passed Measure 11 the required mandatory sentencing. It forced judge to put people behind bars for longer that they would have thus creating a huge prison population because there is no discretion over sentencing. They also do not earn good time for their good behavior and must serve everyday of their sentence.

The last thing that affects the Oregon Budget is the kicker. The kicker is a law that says if the government forecast has exceeded more than a two percent of the general fund budget revenue per biennium it must be returned to the taxpayers. The problem with this is that in one biennium the taxes might be up but the biennium they might go down. It makes it harder for the state to plan for the future when they do not know if they have money to spend or not. Since the kicker was enacted the in 1979 it has kicked more than half the time. The reason this effects the budget the most is because the kicker prevents the state from saving money for the off biennium’s that will occur. It also stops them from spending on things that have been cut in the budgets when there is no money. The education lobbyists for instance, during the 2015 session were looking for the state to fund them at 7.55 million dollars but because they do not know if kicker will kick they are only able to give them about 7.24. All the while the school must start all day kindergarten next year without being properly funded. This often happens where they pass bills during one session and ask another session a few years down the road to pay for it.

Legislative oversight was starting to increase during the 1970s. During the 70s more than half the states established special audit and evaluation committee is to start to perform some oversight tasks. The reason that state legislators try to “maximize their credit” in oversight is because this is one of the activities that a representative can point to in a bid for their reelection (Rosenthal 1981). The first reason legislator’s want oversight is because they believe that they can solve a problem. If the problem is unfixable and the prospects for legislation does not exist, legislators can and do lose interest quickly. Finding a problem and being unable to fix it can be somewhat demoralizing for legislators. The second reason is the chance that they may uncover something that is clearly amiss. This reason is hard to come by though as they only come up on a rare occasion. The findings are usually more management related problems than they are worthless programs. The last reason that legislators pursue oversights is to find substantial budgetary saving. It is difficult to get results from doing this because it is hard to eliminate programs entirely because there will likely be strong support of the programs. Most programs are usually underfunded because it is one thing to authorize legislation it’s another to make sure it has appropriate funding. In fact just as often there are calls to increase spending for programs as there is to decrease funding. One of the problems with oversight is that it can cause unnecessary conflict between legislators and agencies under scrutiny. Oversight can also cause conflict between legislators and their colleagues, especially if the program is one of the legislator’s pet programs or agency (Rosenthal 1981).

In District

During the session some representatives have in district days. In district days are where the legislators go home to their district and meet with citizens. Some hold town halls in their district days or meet with local businesses. Town-halls are usually planned by the representative’s staff. It can take several days to weeks in order to plan one.  One of the reasons it can take several days to weeks to plan is that they want a good turnout so they need to make sure that people will show up. One approach is to pre-schedule town halls for the same time and place. Most representatives have limited budgets so it is hard for them to schedule town halls if they must pay for the space. The way that some representatives deal with this is by scheduling a town hall in a local restaurant. This allows for the business to have some compensated through the purchases made by the constituents that come to the town halls. Town halls give constituents an opportunity to come out and ask questions of their legislators. The town halls are also really good opportunity for a representative to make constituent understand why they make the vote that they do. In an interview with constituents at a town hall they said that they really appreciate having the town hall because it allows them to come and hear what is going on in the legislature. It also gives them a place they can go to speak their minds on the problems that concern them. One of the constituents did not even live in the district but came because her representative does not hold town halls and she wanted to come and hear what is happening in the legislature during the session.

One of the ways that representatives stay in touch with the businesses in their area is to join the local Chamber of Commerce. The relationship with the local Chamber of Commerce works both ways as they tend to have the same interests. The way that this partnership works is that if the representative wants to have a talk with the local businesses they will contact the local Chamber of Commerce and ask them to partner with them on a town hall. The representatives use the meetings to find out their issues and concerns so they can better represent them. The Chamber of Commerce will help to set up the meeting by contacting local businesses thus taking the leg work for the meeting at of the representative’s hands and putting it in the Chamber of Commerce’s. It is a beneficial arrangement for both to have, because the representatives need the businesses to back them in elections and the businesses need the representatives for passing legislation that will help them in their business.

There one ways to think of the four kinds of different legislatures and one way to think about the four different legislators themselves according to Alan Rosenthal’s article “State Legislative Development: Observations from Three Perspectives”. One looks at staff versus the length of schedule, and the other looks at how long the session is versus how long the legislators have served. The first one is the professional legislatures these kinds of legislature tend to have professional politicians that have a larger staff, and have heavier schedules. States like California and New York it into this mold. The second type of legislature also has a large staff and is called a supportive–intensive legislature. Support intensive legislatures tend to be more like professional than amateur ones. States like Florida and New Jersey are good examples of this. The third type of legislature has a smaller staff with a heavy schedule is called the work intensive legislature. The states of New Hampshire, Delaware, and Rhode Island are examples of work intensive legislatures. The final type of legislatures when looking at staff’s versus schedules is called an amateur legislature. Examples of states like this are Alaska and Wyoming. The Alaskan legislature is limited to a ninety day regular session and a thirty day special session.

The first kind of legislature full-time service versus long-term service is referred to as a professional legislator. The second kind of legislature that has full-time service versus short-term service is called a citizen on leave legislature. The next kind is part-time service versus long-term service and this legislator is called a dual-career legislator. The last kind part-time service versus short term service is considered a citizen legislator. Representative’s duties can be very time-consuming. It is made harder when they are expected to work extreme hours with very little pay. It limits the choices of people willing to run for office. To attract the best and brightest states must be willing to pay more for their representatives.

Oregon is one of the states in America that has a part-time legislature with a smaller staff. Oregon’s legislature in Rosenthal’s diagram would be considered an amateur legislature and our legislator would be considered a citizen legislator because in Oregon they only meet for a full session biennial. The full session lasts only about six month and the short session lasts for just over thirty days. Since Oregon does not have a full-time legislature this allows legislators to pursue other interests. One of the ways that legislators spend their time away from Salem is by having another career as the pay they receive for being a representative is $21,936/year during legislative sessions (Ballotpedia). The representatives in Oregon are dedicated individuals willing to give their time to serve the people and should be paid better for their time if we want to attract better candidates to the job. There are doctors, nurses, farmers, and many other types of careers. There are some legislatures that have other community-based jobs such as belonging to the school boards or local NGOs. These outside jobs give the legislators a better understanding of some of the issues that are affecting their districts. The knowledge from outside careers also helps with committee that they are assigned too. The representatives usually want committee assignments that fit what their policy interests are. It makes for a better committee with people on it that know about the subject at hand. It also makes it better for others on the committee because they can approach their colleague with questions that they may have about legislation that there are hearing.

Conclusion

The activities of a representative are pretty basic. During the session there is a focus on getting legislation through committee and passed on to the senate. Their days are filled with mostly committees and meetings. The constituents though are the most important part of what the representatives do. Most of the representatives reach out to their constituent in order to keep them informed and to insure that they will think positively on them when it is time to go and vote again. Oregon only has a regular session every other year so the representative will only spend a few months doing the work of the people. The rest of the year they can pursue either whatever they do in their regular lives.

Bibliography

“2 Percent Surplus Refund (Kicker) History.” Oregon Department of Revenue (1). Accessed March 17, 2015. http://www.oregon.gov/dor/news/docs/kicker.pdf.

“A Brief History of Oregon Property Taxation.” Oregon Department of Revenue (2). Accessed March 17, 2015. http://www.oregon.gov/dor/stats/docs/303-405-1.pdf.

Helstein, Courtney, Chief of Staff Interview 2015 Legislative Session.

Ellickson, Mark C., and Donald E. Whistler. “Explaining state legislators’ casework and public resource allocations.” Political Research Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2001): 553-569.

Freeman, Patricia K., and Lilliard E. Richardson Jr. “Casework in State Legislatures.” State & Local Government Review (1994): 21-26.

Keefe, William Joseph, and Morris S. Ogul. The American legislative process. Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Mooney, Christopher Z. “Information sources in state legislative decision making.” Legislative Studies Quarterly (1991): 445-455.

Mooney, Christopher Z. 1993. “Strategic Information Search in State Legislative Decision Making.” Social Science Quarterly (University Of Texas Press) 74, no. 1: 185-198. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed March 17, 2015).

“Oregon State Legislature.” – Ballotpedia. Accessed March 17, 2015. http://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_State_Legislature.

“Oregon State Legislature How an Idea Becomes Law.” Citizen Engagement How an Idea Becomes Law. Accessed March 17, 2015. https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx.

Rosenthal, Alan. “Legislative behavior and legislative oversight.” Legislative Studies Quarterly (1981): 115-131.

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One thought on “Activities of State Representatives

  1. It is good to know that a state representative’s greatest responsibility is choosing where state money goes. I am an advocate of education and want to make my contributions count, so I want a rep for my state who helps in this area. I will consider this when supporting and voting for my state representatives. Thanks for the information.

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