by Kienan Wear
The heart and soul of state legislatures are the staff members that comprise it. Legislative staff from both the non-partisan institutions, as well as partisan employees, offer legislators a countless number of benefits that help overall productivity in the capital. This is particularly poignant in the case of state legislatures, as their operational budgets pale in comparison to their federal counterparts. It is within this arena, one which in contrast lacks professionalization (1), that staffers can have real effective power over legislative output. It would be an unfair comparison to analyze the differences between state legislative staff and congressional staff, but the fact remains nonetheless that they inherently serve similar functions in terms of day to day operations. This paper shall serve to effectively examine the structure, function, and overall nature of state legislative staff within the context of the Oregon legislature. The varying degree in which personal relationship and trust factor into the legislative process in regards to the people employed in those various institutions will be thoughtfully examined as well.
Legislative assistants or aides are arguably one of the most important staff members in state legislatures, as many states do not have full time legislators to devote all their time and resources. As a result these legislative assistants than serve the purpose of providing a consistent presence in the capital in order to effectively carry out the priorities of the member that they work for. Many legislative assistants meet with interest groups or governmental agencies on behalf of their members, on one hand providing calculated responses to folks that are in line with the views and priorities of their member, but more fundamentally to take effective notes in order to relay the concerns of the interest group or agency to their member. Communication is often challenging as these legislative assistants speak not only for themselves but for their member, requiring them to respond to others in a measured, thoughtful, and often in a non-confrontational manner. A primary function of legislative assistants is to handle the large daily influx of constituent opinions and concerns (2). There are dozens of phone calls made to the legislator by the people they represent every day, and many hundreds more emails are sent. Some responses are respectful and polite, while some are not. Having the ability to listen, be patient, and provide thoughtful responses to constituent concerns is a necessary skill. One could argue that as much as it is important to know what to say in any given situation, it is equally important to know what not to say. In addition to registering constituent opinions, they also work on what is know as constituent casework. When a citizen is having trouble with a state agency for instance, legislative assistants can offer to help by contacting the agency and facilitating an end to the discrepancy. Most days in the capital are a series of meetings back to back until the end of the day. Aside from floor sessions and committee meetings, this is the most prevalent aspect of both legislators and their respective staff members. Much of what can be said or done by legislative assistants in meetings without the member is highly circumstantial and depends upon the members themselves. Some legislators give their staff more leeway to negotiate, while others may just request a comprehensive summary of the meeting and the groups’ respective concerns. This high degree of subjectivity from one office to the next presents many problems when attempting to analyze the qualitative and quantitate nature of the role of legislative assistants in the policy making process.
In Oregon for example, the amount in which legislative assistants are paid is entirely up to the legislator. For each session every member receives the same amount of money in which to conduct and maintain their office. Many legislators, as a consequence of a less professionalized state government, are often independently wealthy, or at least have another job in which they spend their time outside of the session doing. This creates high levels of fluctuation in not only the number of staff members a legislator might employ, but the actual dollar amount they are compensated with as well. One office for example could have just one experienced legislative assistant who by virtue of their experience, institutional memory, and relationships in and around the capitol merits more compensation, therefore limiting the legislators ability to hire anyone else in their office. Another might employ two staff members that are younger and less experienced, ultimately splitting the dollar amount to be compensated from the previous example in half to be distributed to both individuals. Some more affluent legislators may elect to pay for more staff out of their own pocket, thereby creating a distinct institutional advantage over other less well off legislators. What effect might this fluctuation have on the overall equality, legislative productivity, and output in the state?
“Like administrative assistants and secretaries in organization throughout history, legislative staffers hold the keys to the kingdom… If the path to a legislator’s policy heart is through constituents, the path to a legislator’s institutional behavior is through staff members”. (3)
Administrative assistants are essentially the gatekeepers of the legislative member’s office. They are charged with scheduling meetings and events as well as maintaining the office. Most of the calls a legislative office receive that are not constituents or relating to a policy concern are a request for a meeting with the legislator. The ratio of meeting requests received and the amount of time in the day are often at odds, thus the importance of the administrative assistant in prioritizing who gets on the schedule cannot be understated. They are also responsible for keeping office records and managing all the legislation and documents the office receives. Like the role of legislative assistant, they are indubitably bound to the legislator in that no two administrative assistants will be exactly similar in terms of duties and responsibilities. Some members may want to run a tighter ship than others, which then influences the roles of their legislative staff.
The way it works in the Oregon legislature is that each member is given an office budget that allows for them to retain two staff members during the session, and keeping only one of those permanent throughout the year. Imagine a system in which you know you will be effectively laid off every six months? This undoubtably results in high turnover rates for legislative staffers. When legislative assistants are only permitted to keep their jobs during the period in which the legislature is in session, many may opt for work outside the building, most notably as lobbyists, in order to preserve their own job security. What effects do these high turnover rates have on state legislatures? One could argue that with the loss of a legislative assistant, as with many other legislative staff positions, one effectively loses that institutional memory. When this effect is replicated throughout all of the legislative offices, the ability for the legislature to maximize efficiency and productivity could be adversely affected. When a new session begins, new staffers are hired, and while they may have previous experience working in that position or in a similar environment, they may have a lack of policy expertise in regards to the current issues being dealt with that session or the committee work of their new legislative member.
Politics is often said to be about relationships and the subsequent cultivation of trust and collegiality. A lack of trust between a legislative member and their staff, or between legislators themselves can cause a multitude of negative repercussions to legislative productivity. Building that trust therefore can be construed as just an important priority than the policy making itself in regards to the legislative process. It is not within the purview or scope of this analysis to provide meaningful solutions to this important issue, but it does inherently serve to highlight the fundamental importance legislative staff are to their members and the institution as a whole.
Leadership staff are inherently the most partisan offices in the capital, as they work closely with party leadership in effectively carrying out the agenda of their respective party. There are four main leadership offices in the legislature: Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, and the House and Senate Majority and Minority offices. The leadership offices themselves consist of more staff members than a legislative office. The office of the Speaker of the House alone has several permanent staffers as opposed to just the two that legislative members are afforded during session. Their staff includes that of a legislative and administrative assistant, but more often than not the latter position is split into a chief of staff and a secretary or receptionist position. They also have a communications director or press secretary that are responsible with crafting the party message and dealing with the media, several policy analysts that work just during the session, and constituency service staff among many others.
Communication is central to the function of the Senate Majority and Minority offices, between both the members themselves and the public at large. The official role of these offices is essentially to help legislators do their job in whatever capacity they can. On a daily basis the Majority and Minority offices issue press releases to the public highlighting particular policies that were voted on that day. They are also central to facilitating what is know as caucus meetings, which are private meetings including every senate democrat or republican member. Much of the direction of the parties policy platform is hashed out in these meetings, which take place almost every day when the legislature is in session. Caucus meetings are incredibly important because the communication between members would not be as robust without the Majority and Minority office staff helping to facilitate the necessary discussion that needs to take place in order to optimize party unity. In fact, one could argue that most of the actual politicking happens inside these caucuses, where party members discuss any discrepancies they have with a particular piece of legislation before it even goes to the floor for a vote, meaning that when the bill does hit the floor the party then votes in unison, barring minor exceptions.
The Majority office not only acts as a key facilitator for party members, but as a resource hub for legislative assistants. The communications staff in the office can help legislative assistants craft communications strategies for the session, such as how often they should send out newsletters to their constituents and what topics to cover. They can assist in the planning of in-district town halls for the legislator both during the session and in the interim. Several factors can go into planning town halls, such as where it would be most advantageous to hold it, and what particular policy theme to discuss. They also help build session plans for legislators and their staff, ensuring that the policy preferences of the member that session are clear, concise, and organized, as well as providing strategic direction in regards to the politics. While they are primarily tasked with assisting legislators and their staff during the session, there is always a certain level of campaign considerations that go into every action, and as a partisan office they also focus on effectively navigating all members on the politicking in order to not lose any members in an election. Balance is also a key factor in the role the majority office plays, as they not only work for the senate majority leader herself, but the party members as a whole. Equality of service is essential in order to meet the needs of individual members, the whole caucus, and the majority leader. According to Carol Suzuki, the Operations Director for the Senate Majority office with over 20 years of experience working in the capital, the personal relationships and trust she has developed over time with other staff, legislators, and key staffers in several other departments is also critically important to her position (4). In contrast to the partisan dynamic of Senate Majority and Minority offices, the role of the Senate President’s office and the Speaker of the House are tasked with representing all the members of their chamber. They effectively serve the institution of the House or Senate by exercising the control over the flow of legislation from its inception to its introduction to the floor, the overall planning and organizing of floor sessions, and working on the budget.
Secretary of the Senate and Chief Clerk of the House
Some of the most important legislative staff members are not directly linked with legislators themselves, but the institutional as a whole. The offices of the Chief Clerk of the House, as well as the Secretary of the Senate, provide vital organizational assistance to the day to day operations of the legislature. They facilitate the entry of new legislation, or bill dropping as insiders say. They collect and manage all the current legislative concepts, or LC’s, and are primarily responsible for the numbering of bills. They also organize and maintain the sessions on the floor in both the house and the senate, managing the reading of bills and enforcing the institutional rules, such as decorum and who is able to enter the floor. In these regards as well as many others they serve as the institutional memory of the state legislature. Many of these staff members have worked in the capital for a much longer amount of time than some of their partisan counterparts, and as a result they are invaluable resources to new members in terms of knowledge of the rules and procedures. They also facilitate the honorary page program, which lets young Oregonians come to the capital for a day and volunteer to staff the floor sessions. It is an important role and serves to further educate young people about the capital and the legislative process. Many years ago, before the dawn of the internet, there were several more pages on staff in order to run around the capital building delivering messages between offices.
In a similar realm of function are the committee staff. These staffers are responsible for organizing the committee meetings themselves, which includes a whole host of responsibilities including; the writing of agendas, outreach to legislators regarding meeting times, managing committee hearings and providing means to sign up for testimony, and finally, the taking of minutes and collecting of testimony. For in each committee hearing, those who give testimony are required to have printed copies of their remarks in order to be handed to committee staff for the purpose of adding them to the official record. In more modern times, committee staff not only records the minutes of the meeting but is also responsible for their prompt placement online, which also includes a video taped recording of the meeting. As the clerical staff inherently becomes the institutional memory for the rules and procedures of the legislature, so do committee staff become real policy experts. They often can become more knowledgable on a particular issue than the legislators themselves, and through this can become an invaluable resource to committee members. There expertise can often open other doors outside the building for interest groups and other organizations seeking experienced policy advisors.
There are two distinct types of committees; policy committees and budget committees. Policy committees comprise the majority of all committees in the capital. They often deal with multiple policy issues each meeting through the infinite variety of legislation that goes through them. As a result of the general variety of issues these committees deal with between each meeting and throughout the session as a whole, there is little time in the day for the staff of these committees to become experts on each and every issue. Ofttimes the staff is reliant on the general material presented to the committee via witness testimony and informational documents. Legislators and staff simply don’t have the time to study each and every bill put forth, leaving much of the ground level work of fact building to actors outside the building, such as lobbyists and interest groups. Since the materials presented to the committee are crafted by these outside actors, either in support or opposition to a particular piece of legislation, the data can sometimes be misleading in order to portray the policy in a way that benefits the group’s goals. Again, the critical factor here is time.
The influx of policy issues these committees deal with often stands in stark contrast to the work of budget committees. Any bill put forth that has a relation to the budget is usually sent to what is called Joint Ways and Means. This committee is jointly comprised of members of both the House and the Senate, and they are charged with the unenviable task of crafting the entire state budget for the biennium. In order to do this promptly and effectively, the Joint Ways and Means committee branches off into several subcommittees that are tasked with dealing with the budgets of only a few state agencies. Subcommittees such as the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services has to pass a two-year budget for both the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority. When factoring in federal matching dollars for programs like medicaid and medicare, this budget alone is more than double the entire state budget. Legislative members do not have the adequate time or resources to be able to effectively go through every budget line item of these large state agencies in the short span of a roughly 6-7 month legislative session. This is where the role of the budget committee administrator becomes an invaluable asset to both the agencies and the members themselves.
From the beginning of the session, the Committee Administrator is hard at work developing a comprehensive budget recommendation for the subcommittee. The recommended budget itself takes into account the recommendations of the state agencies, previous biennial budgets, the Governor’s budget, and the policy preferences of the committee members. The official role of the administrator is to help legislators understand the choices before them, as well as help organize the work before them. The committees work starts with a series of public hearings, where each individual state agency presents their budget to the committee. The agency tells the committee what it has specifically spent their money on over the course of the last two years, as well as recommending changes to the budget. The Committee Administrator works closely with these state agencies in preparing for the hearing by reviewing their budget and providing valuable insight in terms of how to best present the information in a way that will be effective to the members of the committee. The overall experience of the administrator in working on a particular budget, as well as the personal relationships developed over time with the members themselves, becomes a critical component to producing more productive results. By establishing relationships and a certain amount of trust with both the members and the heads of state agencies gives the administrator a vital role in the overall facilitation of the budget discussion. This is because throughout the budgeting process, legislators might have questions regarding certain line items or the possible implications changing the budget would have on the agency. Those questions are often directed to the Committee Administrator, who must seek out the answers and solutions either through their own research, personal knowledge, or by asking the agency directly. The more trust that exists between these three entities the more they are able to lean on each other throughout the process, and the more likely it is that honesty will prevail in the discussion. In fact, one could argue that the dichotomy between knowledgable long term committee staff and lobbying groups presents its own checks and balance system in the legislative process. As Linda Ames notes, the Committee Administrator for the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services specializing in the Oregon Health Authority budget, when Oregon had in place stronger term limits on legislators the subsequent lack of long term institutional knowledge of the members themselves gave way to a much more robust lobby better equipped to influence the budget process (5). In essence, by having a Committee Administrator with decades of experience writing and working on a budget, they likely provided an even more invaluable resource to members than today.
Along with committees, there are two other important legislative staff offices that provide a critical component throughout the legislative process: the Legislative Fiscal office and the Legislative Revenue office. According to the states legislative website, the Legislative Fiscal office is a permanent nonpartisan legislative service agency that provides “comprehensive research, analysis and recommendations on the state’s biennial budget; evaluates state expenditures, program administration, and agency organization; prepares fiscal impact statements on legislative measure”, and much more (6). The Legislative Revenue office provides “research and analysis on tax policy and school finance issues for legislators, legislative committees, and their staffs, as well as providing revenue impact statements on legislative measures that affect state or local revenue” (7). For every single bill that is assigned to a committee, that bill must have both a fiscal impact statement and a revenue impact statement in order to be able to officially pass out of the committee. When one thinks about the sheer volume of bills that are dropped each session, these staff offices are presumedly busy from start to finish. In the capital building long hallways filled with staff are constantly analyzing the financial impacts each piece of legislation would have. These legislative staffers must have the proper acumen to examine all the fiscal consequences each bill may have if it becomes law.
One of the most fundamental legislative staff organizations is Legislative Counsel. They are primarily charged with writing the actual legislation. The process of bill drafting is an interesting one, as many outsiders assume that legislators and/or their staff write legislation. While at the federal level many legislators have their own legal staff that perform that duty, in Oregon and state legislatures in general however, legislative counsel fulfills this necessary and vital function. It begins with a relatively simple one page form that legislative counsel provides. A legislator fills the form out with as much relevant information as they can regarding the bill or policy that they want drafted. This form is eventually handed to a team of lawyers in Legislative Counsel solely tasked with drafting what are known as legislative concepts. Once the drafter puts the finishing touches on a piece of legislation, it is then sent over to the legislator. The member then has a chance to review and revise it as they see fit, sometimes even sending it back to counsel to re-edit and proofread. Once the legislator is happy with the product, they usually have staff go around and collect signatures from other legislators in order to be co-sponsors or chief sponsors of the bill, this page of signatures is then attached to the back of the bill, hence it is collectively referred to as the bill back. Finally, two copies of the bill, along with the bill back, are then handed to the Chief Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate in order to be officially processed, or “dropped”. The bill is subsequently given a number and then heads off the Senate President’s desk or the Speaker of the House’s desk for it to be referred to a relevant policy or budget committee.
According to the introduction of Oregon’s Legislative Counsel manual, which is an over 300 page manuscript essentially serving as a bill drafting bible: “In formulating any legislation, three phases are involved. The first phase is to secure accurate factual information about a problem. The second phase is to find an approach to meet the problem, to resolve the policy issues. The third phase is to produce a bill that reflects the policy accurately in a form consistent with constitutional provisions and other laws” (8). With the prevalence of major court proceedings arguing over the statutory interpretation of legislation, the act of writing a bill comes with its own distinct problems, as the manual notes: “The legal drafter must write for unidentified foe as well as a known friend. The drafter must write so that not only a person reading in good faith understands but a person reading in bad faith cannot misunderstand” (8).
Throughout the legislative process, the staff employed by the various institutions within the capital wield a tremendous amount of influence. This is primarily due to the sheer amount of work that is necessary to conduct the state’s affairs, coupled with the fact that legislators have neither the time, capacity, or resources to conduct the state’s business by themselves alone. Without legislative staff, members would be less prepared for committee meetings, less informed about the bills they vote on, and less organized in order to achieve their policy goals than they currently are today. Also of particular note is the lack of professionalization in the state legislature, meaning that both the legislators themselves have separate careers outside their political office that can drain their time and resources that could potentially be allocated to their duties as representatives, as well as the potential benefits of implementing more staff positions in order to achieve greater productivity if the legislature were more professionalized.
Personal relationships and trust built over time between staffers and with legislators also helps to facilitate better communication and meaningful discussion. These relationships greatly contribute to legislative productivity, as the wider the network of personal relationships one has in the building the easier it can be to get things done. Legislators who place a great level of trust in their personal staff are influenced by the opinions they have in a larger capacity than they would have been if that trust did not exist. The high turnover rates among legislative assistants only serves to exacerbate this issue by reducing trust which thereby can reduce the institutional knowledge and influence a staffer may have on their legislator.
It should be important to note that the state’s affairs are conducted by an entire institution, and not just a room full of politicians. So much of the work in the capital goes unseen, not as a result of political corruption and secrecy, but by the virtue of the huge amount of groundwork needed to be done in order to make a bill become law, or pass a comprehensive budget for every state agency. Legislative staffers are the primary drivers of such necessary and vital groundwork. If this analysis achieves just one thing, it should be to create a greater understanding and appreciation for the work legislative staff do every day to keep this state running. They don’t often get recognized for their work, as the outside spotlight is almost always directed towards the legislators themselves, regardless of the critical steps completed by staff in order to achieve those outcomes. What we can do as Oregonians is to learn more about the people who work in the capital, because the earlier emphasis on personal relationships contributing to greater communication and productivity is a theory that has the potential to be employed between citizens and their state government. Essentially, the more you know about what is going on in the state legislature, and who is doing it, the more likely one is to trust that institution, or at least be comfortable enough to voice concern over their affairs. To conclude, legislative staff remain the unsung heroes of Oregon’s state legislature, and without them the state would be far less organized and productive.
- Clucas, Richard A., Mark Henkels, and Brent Steel, eds. Oregon politics and government: progressives versus conservative populists. 119-122. U of Nebraska Press, 2005.
- Oregon Legislative Staff Manual. 2015 Session.
- Leete, Laura; Master, Steven. Helping Legislators Legislate: An Executive Education Program for State Senators. ”Journal of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries”. Volume 14, Number 2. Fall 2008.
- Suzuki, Carol. Operations Director for the Senate Majority Office. May 19, 2015. Personal interview.
- Ames, Linda. Committee Administrator for the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services. May 14, 2015. Personal interview.
- Oregon State Legislative Fiscal Office Website. Retrieved May 20, 2015. (https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/lfo).
- Oregon State Legislative Revenue Office Website. Retrieved May 20, 2015. (https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/lro).
- Oregon Legislative Counsel Draft Manual. 2012. (http://www.lc.state.or.us/pdfs/draftingmanual.pdf).