The Formal and Informal Legislative Processes

by Veronica Smith

The 2015 Oregon Legislative session has been an exciting session to witness.  Watching Kate Brown sworn in was a historical event, and the legislature was busy on a number of important issues, such as lowering carbon emissions, background checks for gun purchases, increasing the education funding, and increasing the minimum wage.  A Washington D.C. based research group published a report about state transparency, and gave Oregon an A-; making Oregon a leader in legislative transparency. [i]  The Oregon Legislature is a complex organ that requires a lot of different parts working together in order to perform efficiently.  This paper focuses on the different processes that are necessary for a properly function legislative process, as well as the informal procedures that aid in pushing legislation along.

The Oregon Legislative system has held annual sessions since 2012.  Before 2012, Legislatures met every other year, what is known as a biennial session.  The Legislative Assembly still works off of a biennial state budget.  One of the unique aspects about Oregon is that it has a ‘citizens’ assembly’[1], which means that Legislatures usually have other professions during the off session, such as a professor, a lawyer, or a business owner.  Legislatures make around $20,000 a year, which encourages legislatures to be passionate about working at the capitol and less likely to be influenced by financial gains. The Oregon Legislature is a bicameral, meaning that it consists of two houses, an upper house and lower house[2].  The upper house is the Senate House, and consists of 30 senators.  The Lower house is the House of Representatives and holds 60 representatives.

  1. Legislative Council

In the very beginning, a bill starts out as an idea from a citizen or a group of people who bring their idea to their representative or representatives.  If a representative decides to back the idea, they will send it to the Legislative Council; often referred to as the ‘LC’.  During this process attorneys are involved and write the idea up in the proper legal format.  In the early 50s the legislature relied on volunteer attorneys to write these bills.  They moved away from using volunteers due to the inconsistency and the amount of time it took to understand the complexity and rhythm of the Legislature[3].  One of the attorneys in the LC is Chuck Taylor; he graduated from Willamette University and specialized in tax law.  Starting as early as summer, the LC will begin to receive requests for bills.  The work is divided by specialization, such as environmental issues, business and labor issues, transportation, etc.  Attorneys have to consider Federal law, State law, and local regulations when drafting bills to ensure that there are no conflicting legal issues. Taylor explains that the busiest time for LC is during deadlines, this is the latest date that legislatures can turn in their bills to LC.  After the deadline, the majority of their work consists of making amendments to bills.  Taylor recalls that before the legislature met every year, there were much more highs and lows to his work load.  Now with a session every year, his work is much more steady and consistent, which Taylor appreciates.  Another specialized job in the LC consists of a conflicts team, their job relies on them to catch any bills that have the potential to conflict with each other. If two bills are going to butt heads, often times it is their job to notify the committee administrator and try to resolve the problem.  Depending on how the circumstances, the cases are dealt with on a case by case bases.

The attorneys in LC must hold a neutral political stance when drafting the bills, it is the law[4].  Their personal political preference cannot interfere with the outcome in which the bills are drafted.  Ethics is an important aspect for the professionals down in LC.

There is another way for an idea to become law and that is through a citizen’s initiative. If a minimum number of citizens sign a petition, they can get a specific statute or constitutional amendment onto a ballot, and the citizens will either vote for or against the idea[5].  LC is not always involved in the drafting of these measures.  The group or individuals who are pushing the measure initiative along can use their own attorneys if they’d like.  Often times LC will be involved in working out any kinks after the measure has already been drafted[6].

Once the ‘idea’ is written up in its proper legal format, it is given the title ‘LC’ and a number to categorize it.  ‘LC’ stands for legislative concept, which is not to be confused with the Legislative Councils who are the attorneys who write the bill.  The LC (legislative concept) is given to the Chief Clerk, if it is to start in the House of Representatives, or to the Senate Secretary if it starts in the Senate; one of these two actors will officially assign the bill its number[7].

  1. Sponsors & Chief Sponsors

At this stage, the bill will be in its final draft which will include a bill back, where legislatures can sign to the bill as a co-sponsor or chief sponsor.  It is important to have a one-pager for the bill.  Because legislators are bombarded with many bills, a one-pager is a one page document that quickly highlights the important aspects and ideas of a bill.  For example, the one-pager will include the problem that the bill is attempting to solve, how the bill will solve it, and why this is the best solution to this problem.  A legislator will pick up the main intentions of the bill and can decide whether or not to sponsor the bill.  A co-sponsor is not as strong of a stance as chief sponsoring.  Co-sponsoring tells citizens that the legislator believes that the bill is a good idea and they will support its outcome.  Chief-sponsoring requires more reasonability from the legislator.  A chief sponsor would be closely involved in the bill writing and passing of the bill passed[8].  A bill can receive a chief-sponsor from both houses.  It is helpful for a bill to attain chief-sponsors by legislators from both sides, so that there is a legislator closely championing the bill throughout both houses.  It is beneficial to have more sponsors that show support for a bill, but it is a more strategic approach to have key legislators on the bill.  For instance acquiring a legislator’s chief-sponsor who chairs on a committee where the bill will most likely end up can improve the chances of a bill passing through committee.

A bill can occasionally not have any sponsors, and this usually occurs when a bill is less controversial or a simple housekeeping bill, and will easily pass through committee.  However, this can be used as a strategic move if a bill is very contentious and a legislature doesn’t want to attach their name directly to the bill.  This can decreases transparency and makes it more difficult for constituents to follow the trail back to a legislator which decrease accountability.

  1. First Reading

Once the bill is in the correct legal jargon and is also assigned potential sponsors, it will either go to the House of Representatives or the Senate where it will be ‘first read’.  Depending which house the bill will begin in, it will either go to the Speaker of the house or the Senate President[9].  If the bill starts on the House side, the Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, will assign the bill to a committee.  If the bill begins on the Senate side, the Senate President, President Courtney, will assign it to a Senate Committee.  Legislators can consider who sits on which committees and who chairs certain committees when deciding which side they want their bill to pass through first.  If a legislator thinks a certain committee will be more receptive to their bill, this can influence their decision to start their bill in that house first.  Another strategy to consider is the timing of when to drop the bill.  Bills that are introduced earlier in session go through committee and the floor quicker than ones towards the end of session.  Also if there is a contentious bill that is occupying too much time and attention, a legislature may wait until that bill dies down before introducing their bill.

  1. Committees & Public hearings

After the first reading, the bill is assigned to a committee, where the majority of the work and deliberation occurs[10]. The chair of a committee holds a lot of legislative power; they decide which bills will be scheduled for hearings and which bills will be voted on.  This power essentially allows the chair of a committee to kill a bill or allow it to proceed to a hearing and go to a floor vote.  With so many bills passing through the legislature often times there is not enough time to hold hearings for every bill.  The Chair must prioritize which bills they find more important and which must take a back seat.  Often time committees will vote unanimously, or along their party lines. In committee, the bill can be scheduled for a public hearing.  At a hearing anyone can come and testify on behalf of the bill.  Groups and organization will testify and give their unique perspective on the issue, and explain how the change in the law will affect them.  Ordinary citizens can also appear before the committee to show their support or opposition for the bill and give their reasoning why the bill is beneficial or unnecessary.

SB 423 was a bill about lowering carbon emissions by adding more biofuels to gasoline.  During its hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment Natural Resources, many citizens and small business owners came in to testify.  They stated their concerns over the potential increase in gas prices.   Citizens in lower economic brackets worried that an increase in gas price would overwhelm their already tight budget, and similarly struggling small business owners also proclaimed their concerns that an increase in gas would decrease their profit margins.  Proponents of the bill, such as the DEQ, reassured the committee and citizens that prices would not increase more than .19 cents over the next ten years.  Furthermore, they explained that there was a provision that capped gas prices from reaching a certain level.  Other advocates of the bill were environmentalist, who asserted that introducing more biodiesel into the gasoline would lower Oregonians carbon emissions considerably and support new renewable energy resources that were more sustainable than petroleum.  Other opponents claimed that Oregon was already the top in the nation for low carbon emission and that there was no need to further lower our standards.  There were many mixed testimony whether the subsequent laws enacted in California and British Colombia had been successful in lower carbon emission and whether the gas prices had increased due to this law specifically.

A report done by the International Center for Sustainable Cities explained that “to achieve emissions reduction-not only in the city’s operations, but also in the activities of its resident-this way of seeing carbon emissions needed to inspire action throughout the community. [Cities need to implement] sustainability indicators that encourage behavior change across individuals and businesses, other than simply educating”[11].The fears from both sides were both legitimate, but came from different sides of the spectrum. The opposition feared that the economic burden was being unfairly placed on them and were worried about the near future.  In contrast, supporters insisted that it was important to curb carbon emissions and feared that environmental damage would have worse economic damages in the distant future.

Another contentious bill was SB 631, which is the Single-Payer Health Care Bill.  This bill would enable the government to be the main provider of health care for most of Oregonians, rather than private health care companies.  This concept has been in the works for many sessions now, growing more support every year[12].  At times a legislator will sponsor a bill, understanding that the likelihood of it passing is slim.  It is still important to advocate for the bill and begin the conversation, because the more attention a bill receives the more likely it is to garner enough support for it to be successful in the future.  Opponents of the bill do not like the idea of a bigger government, or increasing citizen’s taxes to pay for this change.  Many people came in and testified. They told personal stories about how the rising cost of health care had added stress to an already difficult time.  One of the differences between this public hearing and SB 423’s public hearing was that the people who gathered in the SB 631 public hearing room almost all were wearing the same red T-shirt that promoted the same goal.  Single payer health care has a grassroots movement behind that advocates that health care is a human right. People were more organized, united, and passionate about the ethical aspects that surrounded this bill.  “State and national reform groups all agree that a movement for universal health care must rely on grass-roots mobilization and the support and participation of local activists.”[13] A slide show provided a visual to show statistics about the rising cost of health care over the years.  It provided graphs that explained that the cost of health care had risen 50% more than the Oregon economy since 1990, and it had also risen quicker than inflation in Oregon[14].  SB 631 has a complimentary bill, HB 2828, which provides funding for a comprehensive study about the best method to fund SB 631 if it were to pass.

Once hearings are completed the members of the committee will consider all the facts and consequences of the bill. At this point, the chair will decide if a bill will receive a work session.  This is the time when the members of a committee deliberate and take a vote on a bill. If a bill doesn’t receive a work session, this is the stage where many bills die.  If the bill passes through the committee, there will be ‘second read’ in the house it originated in.  The purpose of the second reading is to announce that the bill has passed committee and floor vote is pending.

  1. Influential Actors

Between the beginning and end of promoting a bill there are multiple strategies involved to get a bill passed. Legislators will hold press conferences usually only if a topic is very controversial.  Due to time constraints, a more likely avenue is to hold a press release.  A press release is less pressure and can craft the exact message a legislator is trying to convey, without any surprises.  Many legislators will conduct semi-regular town halls or constituent coffees to announce updates about the legislature and also to receive feedback form their constituents.  If a bill is anticipated to be voted on by referendum, voted by the people, a legislator will want to gain public support for a bill.  A smart tactic would be to organize a rally where they would talk about the bill and its importance, and invite citizens to rally outside the steps of the capital.  News casters can film the event, which would spread the information about the topic to a wider audience.

Due to SB 631 having a strong grass-roots movement, advocates of the single payer bill joined up with legislators to host a rally outside the capital.  Supporters held up signs and banners, while key speakers, such as Chief Sponsor Senator Dembrow campaigned for the bill in front of the crowd and news reporters.

Grass-roots groups are similar to another influential player: a legislator’s constituents.  These are the people who live in the districts which the legislator represents. If a bill will potentially affect a constituent, they have the opportunity to contact their representative and explain to them their stance on the issue.  They can share personal stories, or bring up materials that legislators might not have yet considered.  Legislators will receive many form-emails, which are emails that constituents did not write themselves but believe in the ideas that are expressed in the letter. They will attach their name to the email and send it to their respective representatives.  This can persuade a legislator to reconsider their stance on an issue if enough constituents contact them.  A good example is the proposed Vaccination Bill during the 2015 session.  Most legislators where supportive of the bill and believed it to be an important public health bill, but due to the influx of disgruntled constituents, the bill was dropped because it was too contentious with the citizens of Oregon. Some legislators believe that one genuine and personally written email is more influential than a handful of form emails. Thus, this demonstrates the more emotional and personal side of politics.

Making amendments to bills is an important aspect of the legislative process. There are many reasons to add an amendment to a bill. Often times a bill will have good intentions but will be worded in a way that may create an unwanted loop hole or make the bill itself irrelevant.  So an amendment is made.  Other times a bill may produce a conflict of interest with another bill or with a pre-existing law, and must be amended.  The most strategic use of amendments is to amend a bill so that more legislators feel comfortable with the outcome of the bill.  An important job at the State Capital is the whips. The whip is the party leader’s deputy who gathers information before a third reading and is in charge of the vote count.  If necessary, a whip will try and resolve any issues some of the legislators have with a specific bill.  For instance if a bill is far reaching, an amendment can be made to curb some of the bills jurisdiction.  A lot of the times, a bill will not reach its third reading floor vote if it doesn’t have enough votes to pass.  A bill that is being voted on the floor is more than likely going to be approved.

Lobbyists have an important role in the legislative process.  They can inform legislators on specific issues, and attempt to influence their position.  A lobbyist can be a person or group of people who support a cause, such as the environment or higher education.  Different lobbyists have more clout than others.  Depending on how closely a lobbyist works with a certain legislature, or perhaps how much support a legislature receives from a group, can be a factor in how influential the group is on the legislature’s stance.  Because legislators are very busy, lobbyist are essential in helping legislators keep tabs on their bills.  It is very much a symbiotic relationship; lobbyist can aid legislators by updating them on relevant issue related to their bills.  Overall, all of these individuals and groups have a similar goal: to persuade the legislators that by voting in favor of their position, it will have the best outcome.

SB 613 is a good example of how effective lobbying can halt a bills progress.  Many concerned citizens raised the issue over aerial spraying of pesticides in close proximities of their homes and schools, and without much notice as to when the spraying would occur.  They brought their concerns to the legislators in hopes that they could device a bill that would put stricter regulations on spraying boundaries and include a notification provision.  Unfortunately for these citizens their opponent would be the timber industry, which has historically been a strong economic industry in Oregon.  The timber industry provides many jobs and is essential in the Oregon economy.  Oregon is the number one producer of lumber in the United States[15]. When proponents of the bill initially began campaigning, they had the support of the chair of the committee where the bill would most likely be considered. When the next legislative session began, a change in the committee leadership determined to be fatal for the bill. According to an article published by Oregon Live, the new leadership had many constituents in the timber industry, who also aided their campaigns[16].  This can greatly impact a committee member’s attitude on an issue.  Unfortunately for the citizens affected by the pesticide spraying, the Timber Industry was able to prove more convincing and have more influence.

  1. Second Readings, Third Readings, & Floor Votes

Once a bill has had its second reading, the bill will proceed on to its third reading.  There is formal etiquette about the specific presentation of a bill, where to walk while on the floor, who may speak and when.  The President or the Speaker must steer the proceedings and floor debate based on the traditional rules of the Oregon Legislature, but it is done in relaxed and friendly manner.  At the third reading, it is tradition for legislators to be given the opportunity to debate issues related to the bills on the agenda.  At this point, no amendments or changes to the bill can occur, but they can assert their stance one last time to the rest of the legislators before the final vote takes place on a bill.  The Legislators can personally reflect once more, before officially announcing their vote[17].  The bill needs to receive a majority to pass; that’s 31 ‘aye votes’ in the House of Representatives or 16 yes votes in the Senate.

During the third reading of SB 324, the floor session took over 4 hours of tedious debate over the bill.  On the House side it took a grueling 6 hours before it was voted on.  A typical floor session will usually range between an hour to an hour and half.  During these sessions legislators were not allowed to leave the floor, to ensure that no legislators were ‘absent’ from the vote count. Many republicans, and some democrats, where opposed to the bill.  They used many different tactics to prevent the bill from passing.  The Oregon Legislature bans filibusters, which is a tactic that legislators can use to stall or prevent a vote from occurring.  However, there are procedural filibusters which can result in a similar outcome.  Some republicans attempted to stall the vote on SB 324 by voting on a ‘motion to postpone’ which would delay the vote until the next day, but failed.   They also called for a ‘motion to postpone indefinitely’ which would result in killing the bill, but this motion also failed[18].  Another way the bill was stalled was to propose a motion to refer the bill back to committee, this was to no avail.   Additionally, opponents prepared a packet of questions, discussions, and other issues to add length to the debate. One representative brought a stack of letters that were written by citizens who opposed the bill, and the Representative read every single one.  Every legislator has 5 minutes of floor time to speak about a measure.  However, if a legislator was not finished speaking, another legislator could forfeit their time to the speaking legislator.  During the third reading of SB 324, a greater amount of legislators spoke about the issue than is normally customary, in an attempt to occupy more time. One more motion the challengers of the bill used was to propose using the minority report, which in this instance contained a referendum, which would give the responsibility to the citizens of Oregon.  A referendum would make Oregonians accountable to vote on the bill, and decide whether it passes or fails.  A minority report is developed when two committee members who are in the minority of an issue sign a report that officially states their opposition to a bill[19].

Once the bill was finally put to a vote in the Senate, the bill passed and was sent to the House of Representatives to go through the whole process again.  If the House of Representatives makes an amendment to a bill it must be approved by the Senate as well[20].  If there is difficulty in coming to an agreement, a conference committee is scheduled to facilitate in finding a common ground.  Once a bill passes through both chambers it is sent to Legislative Council where it is enrolled.  The bill is then signed by three officials.  Depending on which side the bill initiated on, the bill will be signed by either the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives or the Secretary of the Senate; as well as the Senate President and the Speaker of the House.  The bill is directed to the Governor, where she has 5 days to decide to sign the bill.  If the Legislative session is not in session, she has 30 days.  If the Governor decides to veto the bill, both houses can take a vote and if both house receive more than 2/3 vote, the Governor’s veto is overridden[21].

SB 324 passed the senate with 17 ayes and 13 nays, and on the House side it passed with an even closer margin; 31 ayes and 29 nays. Before the Governor had signed the bill, many opponents of the bill urged Kate Brown to veto the bill.  Just days after the bill had passed both houses; the Western States Petroleum Association filed a law suit asking the Oregon Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the bill’s ‘second phase’.  The WSPA claimed that the second phase of the clean fuels bill, which was constructed by the DEQ, is over reaching and places illegal restrictions. “It is the position of WSPA and its member companies that Oregon’s low-carbon fuel standard program is infeasible and could do irreparable damage to the state’s energy market,” said WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd.  An advocate of the bill and spokeswoman for the Oregon Environmental Council, Jessica Moskovitz said she wasn’t shocked by the filing. “Apparently if you have enough money and you can’t win in the Legislature, this is what you do,” she said. “They’re forcing the state to waste time and money on this lawsuit.”[22]

  1. The Final Stages

Originally when the plan for SB 324 was first implemented in 2009, it had a sunset provision, which sets a time limit on the effectiveness of the bill.  A certain date is set which if not acted upon will nullify the bill[23].  SB 324 was a bill to repeal that sunset provision of the clean fuels bill.  If the bill failed, then the bill’s laws would cease to be imposed.

SB 324 will go into effect on January 1st of the next year.  If a bill has ‘an emergency clause’, it can set a sooner date for the bill to be enacted or it can be enacted immediately after the bill is signed by the Governor.  An emergency clause can also prevent the bill from being referred to a vote of the public[24].  This can be used if a bill is contentious and proponents don’t think citizens will vote in favor of the bill.

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, there are many different actors, functions, procedures, and rules that must all work in conjunction to successfully pass a bill.  It starts with any idea, a way to solve a problem, and heads over to the attorneys in LC to be written in the legal format.  Then the new bill gains support by receiving sponsors and chief sponsors. After the bill is first read, it is assigned to a committee, where the majority of the work occurs. A public hearing will hopefully be scheduled, followed by a work session.  At this time changes and amendments can be made.  There are many influential people advocating for the bill, such as lobbyist, legislative aids, legislators, grass-roots groups, and constituents. If the bill looks optimistic it will be scheduled for a third reading and floor vote.  If it passes, the last step is for the Governor to sign the bill and make it law.  Along the process, there are different strategies that can be used to improve the success of a bill, like starting a bill out in the Senate rather than the House first, or amending a bill slightly to make it more bi-partisan.  Working in the capital can be a very rewarding experience.  It is a great opportunity to become more emerged in Oregon’s political culture, while gaining a thorough understanding of the legislative process.

[1] Oregon Secretary of State, “Oregon Legislative Assembly History” http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/legislative/recordsguides/legislative_guide/History.html

[2] Oregon State Legislature “The Legislative Body” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Legislative-Body.aspx

[3] Chuck Taylor, The Role of the Legislative Counsel Committee, Personal Interview. May 4 2015.

[4] Chuck Taylor, The Role of the Legislative Counsel Committee, Personal Interview. May 4 2015.

[5] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[6] Chuck Taylor, The Role of the Legislative Counsel Committee, Personal Interview. May 4 2015.

[7] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[8] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[9] Oregon Secretary of State, “Oregon Legislative Assembly History” http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/legislative/recordsguides/legislative_guide/History.html

[10] Oregon Secretary of State, “Oregon Legislative Assembly History” http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/legislative/recordsguides/legislative_guide/History.html

[11] Ted Rutland, Alex Aylett, “The work of policy, actor networks, governmentality, and local action on climate change in Portland OR.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2008, volume 26, pages 627-646

[12] Peter Shapiro “Health Movement History” http://hcao.org/history/

[13] Hoffman B. Health Care Reform and Social Movements in the United States.American Journal of Public Health. 2008;98(Suppl 1):S69-S79.

[14] Health Care for All Oregon “Fliers and Handouts” http://hcao.org/fliers-and-handouts/

[15] Alicia Andrews and Kristin Kutara, “Oregon’s Timber Harvest” Oregon Department of Forestry (2005)

[16] Rob Davis, “How average Oregonians challenged the Timber Industry, and lost” Oregon Live (2015)

[17] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[18] Oregon Legislature, ”Glossery” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Legislative-Glossary.aspx

[19] Oregon Legislature, ”Glossery” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Legislative-Glossary.aspx

[20] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[21] Oregon Legislature, “How Ideas becomes a Law” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx

[22] Saul Hubbard “Oil companies file lawsuit to block state ‘clean fuels’ program” The Register-Guard

(MARCH 7, 2015)

[23] Oregon Legislature, ”Glossery” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Legislative-Glossary.aspx

[24] Oregon Legislature, ”Glossery” https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Legislative-Glossary.aspx

[i] Benjamin Davis, Phineas Baxandall, “Following the Money 2014 How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data” OSPIRG Foundation (April 2014): pg. 5

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