Leadership Roles in the Oregon Legislative Assembly

by Emily Langston

Members of the Oregon Legislative Assembly are important decision-makers and leaders in state politics.  They represent the interests of the people who elect them, and make laws which will touch the day-to-day lives of Oregonians all over the state.  While all senators and representatives are highly influential, the people they elect to lead them in the Senate and House are especially powerful.  Some leadership roles will be more political, or more partisan than others, but all leaders must grapple with performing their essential duties in a highly charged political environment.  Legislative leaders must strike a balance between advancing their own priorities and the agenda of their party, while carrying out their essential duties as leaders and representatives. 

Leaders are selected based on a number of characteristics.  Experience can be important, but in many cases, policy expertise and leadership skills are given greater consideration.[1]  Being recognized as a member who positively and significantly contributes to the success of the majority party is vital to being selected for many leadership roles.  Oregon does not have limits for how many terms a legislator can be in office, nor are there limits on how long a person can serve in a legislative leadership role.  This establishes the possibility for leaders to be long-term members of the legislature, and for a leader to retain his or her role for many sessions.  This is not, however, always the case.  In the 2015 session, the Oregon Legislature has a significant number of less experienced members serving in leadership positions.  Most legislative leadership positions are held by the majority party of each chamber.  Not only will the majority party fill most of the leadership roles, their leadership will also be more salient and productive.  When the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, there is likely to be strategic collaboration between the leadership of the two chambers.  They may establish common priorities and discuss strategies for moving legislation between the two chambers.  In the Oregon Legislature this session, there is a particular emphasis on party unity.  For the party to be in sync with itself, there has to be inter-chamber collaboration.  When the governor of the state is also of the same party which holds the majority in both chambers, it is particularly easy for leaders to collaborate and advance the party agenda.  When the two chambers are controlled by different majority parties, it can be much more challenging to pass legislation that is typically supported (or not) along party lines.  This requires leaders to work together more to make bills acceptable to both parties, or at least enough members of the other party to get it through both chambers.  If leaders are not willing to work together, the legislature may accomplish little, as bills pass through one chamber only to die in the other.

Senate President and Speaker of the House          

The highest-ranking legislative leadership roles are that of Senate president and Speaker of the House.  These offices are elected by their colleagues, and are filled by members of the majority party.  The president and Speaker will usually, though not always, be senior members of the legislature.  The Senate president and Speaker of the House have similar roles within their respective chambers.  These roles are multi-faceted, including both official and customary duties.

Official tasks of the Speaker and president include presiding over the daily sessions of the chambers, and coordinating administrative functions.[2]  While much of the hiring is delegated, the presiding officers are ultimately in charge of professional staffing within their chamber.[3]  They have control over the operation and organization of their chamber, including offices and seating arrangements.  The Speaker and the president are expected to represent their chamber in negotiations between chambers and with the governor.  They will also work with state agencies.  As important figures in state politics, they are expected to give press releases and to represent the legislature as a whole to the public.  One of the most important tasks of the Senate president and the Speaker of the House is to determine the number of standing committees, the committees’ purviews, and the number of legislators who will sit on those committees.  The president is in charge of Senate committees and the Speaker will be in charge of House committees, but these two leaders will also cooperate to produce a number of joint committees. They appoint committee chairs and membership, and refer bills to committees within their respective chambers.  Deciding the fate of bills is where the president and Speaker are most powerful.  Determining to which committees to direct bills is important, knowing that different chairs will handle bills differently.  They also decide when bills will be read on the chamber floor, and if they will come up for a vote at all.

The president and Speaker have significant power over the other members of the legislature.  They have the means to reward and punish them, for instance, with leadership appointments and committee assignments, or removing them from those roles.  The president and Speaker cannot, however, remover a legislator from his or her position as a senator or representative.  Whether or not a legislator keeps his or her job is entirely up to their own electorate.  The rank-and-file members also have power over their leaders, as leaders must answer to the members for reelection to their leadership position.  For this reason, the Speaker and president are relatively unlikely to dole out significant punishment for behavior they dislike.  It is more important that leaders can count on members to reelect them to leadership, than it is for all members to always act in line with what leadership wants.  Ultimately, the president of the Senate and Speaker of the House should serve the members of their chambers.  They should hear the concerns and needs of their members, and do what they can to respond to them.  Building and maintaining strong working relationships is vital to the success of all legislators, including those in leadership.  For this reason, rank-and-file members and those in leadership are likely to treat each other with respect, and address requests made of them.  Leadership will tend to give members what they want, and will not ask too much of them.  In turn, members are not likely to outright defy the wishes of their leadership.

The president and Speaker play important roles in negotiating and building consensus to move legislation.[4]  They do this with their chamber as a whole, but especially within their party’s caucus.  Within the majority caucuses, the principal leaders will work closely with the majority party leaders.  It is particularly important that the caucus agrees on key legislation, and the leaders are the most important people in getting the members of their caucuses to that level of consensus.  If there is consensus within the majority party, the leadership does not have to rely on any members of the minority party to move bills through their chamber.  The president and Speaker may have personal conversations about what is keeping a caucus member from supporting a bill, and may be the person to go around and convince people to vote for specific legislation that is more contentious.

The president of the Senate and Speaker of the House play important roles in state legislative campaigns.  In particular, the president and the Speaker will engage in fundraising activities for their party.  They will distribute those funds to incumbent legislators seeking reelection, and to members of their party seeking first time election.  Based on their levels of power in the legislature, these leaders are in uniquely advantageous positions in terms of fundraising.  Lobbyists and interest groups are particularly keen to give them donations, as they recognize the unparalleled power these leaders have to move (or not move) legislation.  The president and Speaker concentrate election support and campaign contributions on close races.  They also may give preferential treatment during the legislative session to incumbents expected to run close races, in order to increase their visibility and attract positive attention to them.  This may include desirable committee appointments, or giving the opportunity to sponsor a bill attractive to their district.  The opposite is true for minority party legislators in contentious districts – the president and Speaker may give them the least desirable committee appointments, and deliberately make it difficult for them to accomplish anything during session.[5]

As with many aspects of the political process, relationships are an important determinant in how the Speaker and president interact with each other and with their chambers.  When the principal leaders have a strong working relationship, it allows for more collaboration between their two chambers.  They are likely to strategize together on bigger bills.  While they cannot demand anything of each other, their requests will carry greater weight than those coming from other members.  Based on personality, relationships, and priorities, the president and Speaker will lead their chambers uniquely.  One major difference in leadership style pertains to how much the leader uses his or her own power and the power of their party.  The majority party caucus will put pressure on their leader to move party-line legislation.  Some leaders are careful not to allow too many bills to pass that are only supported by one party, while others more readily take advantage of their party majority.  This is particularly notable when the majority party holds significantly more than half of the seats in the chamber.  A cautious leader may not want to tread over the minority party and risk ruining relationships, even though they have the votes to pass nearly anything their party wants.  For other leaders, that is not a priority – they may use their party’s majority to move whatever legislation they want, regardless of how the minority party will react.  Both of these strategies have their benefits and their downfalls.  A president or Speaker who limits the party-line legislation moving through their chamber will be better liked by the minority party, but they may encounter push-back from their own party, and in extreme cases may be removed from their role.  Leaders who take greater advantage of their party’s majority may gain more approval from their own party, but also risk burning bridges with minority party members.  This may be especially problematic when they need to get a greater majority to agree on something (for instance, raising taxes) or if their own party loses the majority in a future election cycle.

For the 2015 legislative session, the president of the Oregon State Senate is Peter Courtney.  Courtney is a Democrat, representing Oregon Senate District 11.  Courtney has been an Oregon Senator since 1999, and had previously served in the House of Representatives since 1981.[6]  He was first elected to be Senate President in 2003, when the Senate was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  Since then, he has been re-elected to the position every biennium and is now serving his seventh term as president.  Previous to Courtney, the longest serving president of the Oregon State Senate served only four terms.  For the 2015 session, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is Tina Kotek.  Speaker Kotek is a member of the Democratic Party, representing Oregon House District 44.  She has served in the House since 2007, and was elected by her colleagues to lead them as Speaker in 2013, and again in 2015.

Senate President Pro Tempore and House Speaker Pro Tempore

The Senate president pro tempore and the House Speaker pro tempore are charged with carrying out the duties of the Senate president and Speaker of the House, respectively, in the absence of the principal leaders.  Usually this will mean presiding over floor sessions when the president or Speaker cannot be there.  Other members, however, will also occasionally preside.  The president and Speaker may assign other tasks to the president pro tempore and the Speaker pro tempore as they see fit, and as needed.  These positions carry a relatively high level of influence as members of the leadership team, although their official duties may not prescribe a high level of power.  The current Senate president pro tempore is Ginny Burdick, a Democrat representing Oregon Senate District 18.  Burdick has been in the Oregon Senate since 1996, and is currently serving her third term as Senate president pro tempore.  The House Speaker pro tempore for the 2015 session is Tobias Read, a Democrat representing Oregon House District 27.  He was first elected state representative in 2006.

Majority and Minority Party Leaders

The roles of Senate and House majority leaders are highly influential positions.  One of the primary responsibilities of the Senate and House majority leaders is to work with the president and the Speaker, respectively, to develop the majority party agenda for their chambers.  This task carries immense weight, as the majority party agenda will essentially be the agenda for the whole chamber for the session.  The majority leaders will preside over their caucus meetings.  In caucus meetings, the merits of bills are discussed, as well as amendments to them.  The caucus will determine whether or not to support bills.  Decisions about which bills are discussed, and to what extent, are extremely important.  Caucus leaders will also have great influence as they lead the discussion around a specific bill.  Majority and minority party leaders are responsible for staffing their caucus offices.  Caucus offices can be important resources for members of the caucus and their staffs.  Caucus staff conducts policy research, writes legislation and develops rhetoric which is shared with caucus members for use in communications and developing their own policy positions.[7]  The caucus offices also handle media relations for the party.

Majority party leaders and minority party leaders have the same role, in essence, although some of their functions will differ.  The House and Senate minority leaders will determine, in collaboration with their caucus, the extent to which the minority party will cooperate with the majority party.  This determination will have significant bearing on the role of the minority party in general and its leadership in particular.  Minority party leadership may choose to position their caucus in opposition to everything that the majority party does, in order to make the majority party ineffective and thus increase the chances of electing more members of the minority party in the next election.  This can be an effective strategy, although, if the majority party holds enough seats, they can accomplish much of their agenda independently.  In the hopes of moving more of their own legislation, the minority party leaders may direct their caucus to work more cooperatively with the majority party.  This is the approach taken during the 2015 legislative session in Oregon.  This may, in part, be attributable to the relative unlikeliness of electing a Republican majority in the next election cycle, regardless of the behavior of either party.  Minority party leaders are likely to try to work with members of the majority party to amend legislation to make it more acceptable to their minority party.  The consideration given to minority party members’ amendments will depend on the individual relationships between legislators, and the relationships between the parties themselves.  The minority party may expect a certain level of compromise from the majority party, but the majority party may be unwilling to come to the table on certain issues.

The Senate and House minority leaders will be instrumental in developing the minority party agenda.  They will lead their caucus in developing positions on bills.  Most of the legislation that moves to the chamber floors will be majority party agenda items, or just bills brought forward by members which the majority party has agreed to support.  In the case of particularly important or controversial bills, the minority leader may work to develop a minority report to present on the floor.  Minority reports are essentially alternatives to party-line legislation that the majority party is bringing to the floor.  Minority reports are written by the minority caucus office, after gathering ideas and positions from other minority party members.  The minority leader will likely be the legislator to carry the minority report, when one exists.  Another important task of the Senate and House minority leaders is to lead floor debate for the minority party.

For the 2015 session, the Senate Majority Leader is Diane Rosenbaum.  Senator Rosenbaum represents Senate District 21, which covers part of Southeast Portland, Milwaukie, and Oak Grove.  She was first elected to be District 21’s senator in 2008, and was elected by her colleagues in 2010 to be the Senate majority leader.  Rosenbaum previously served in the Oregon House of Representatives, where she held other important leadership roles, including Speaker of the House and Speaker pro tempore.  The current House Majority Leader is Val Hoyle.  Hoyle represents House District 14, which includes West Eugene and Junction City.  She was first appointed to the legislature in 2009, and has served as House Majority Leader since 2012.  For the 2015 session, the Senate Minority Leader is Republican Senator Ted Ferriolli, who represents Senate District 30, geographically the largest district in Oregon, including broad rural areas.  He was first elected to the Senate in 1996, and has previously served as Senate President Pro Tempore.  The House Minority Leader is Republican Representative Mike McLane, from Oregon House District 55, which covers part of South-Central Oregon.

Other Caucus Leadership Roles     

In addition to majority and minority party leaders, the four caucuses may also have deputy leaders, assistant leaders, whips and deputy whips.  Assistant leaders may be assigned to focus on specific policy areas, or political issues.  Caucus leadership teams will play a significant role in campaign strategy and fundraising.  To select caucus leadership, members are nominated to the roles and then an anonymous vote is held in the caucus to elect them.  Fundraising for the party may be a significant determinant in who is nominated and elected to caucus leadership.

The Senate and House majority and minority party whips all have very similar roles, although they are more significant and influential within the majority party.  Caucus whips count votes within their party.  They make sure that individual members intend to vote for bills that the caucus supports, and that the bills have the necessary support to pass.  (Conversely, they determine whether party members intend not to vote for a bill the caucus does not support).  In the majority party caucus, bills which do not have the votes necessary to pass on the floor may not be sent to the floor at all; the chair of the committee handling the bill will be instructed not to move it forward.  Whips also ensure that caucus members do in fact vote with the caucus on bills which the caucus has agreed to a position on.  Whips are more important for keeping track of members in large caucuses, like the 2015 House Democratic Caucus, which has 35 members.  The Senate Republican Caucus, with only 12 members, does not require a large, official leadership team, but relies more on de facto leaders within the party who can utilize their own strong relationships to request favors of other members.

Committee Leadership

Committee membership and leadership in the Senate is appointed by the Senate President, and in the House of Representatives, by the Speaker of the House.  The positions of committee chairs are most often filled by members of the majority party.  The president or Speaker may assign members of the minority party to committee leadership, if he or she has a good relationship with the minority party as a whole, or with particular minority party legislators.  This may be done to foster greater bipartisanship in the assembly.  For the 2015 session, nearly all Senate committees are chaired by a Democrat, with a Republican serving as vice-chair.  While the president and Speaker make final decisions about committee appointments, their decisions are not arbitrary.  Members’ preference is taken into account, as well as seniority and tenure on committees.  Legislators come from a wide array of different backgrounds, so the Speaker and president are also likely to consider members’ areas of specialization and personal experience outside of the legislature as they make decisions about appointments.  A minority party member may also be selected to chair a committee if he or she has particular policy expertise in that area which no majority party members can match.  In general, both majority and minority party legislators tend to report being pleased with their committee assignments.[8]

In the Oregon Legislative Assembly, committees are powerful.  This means that their chairs are particularly powerful as well.  Bills are not amended on the chamber floor; committees are expected to have done this work, and the body only votes whether or not to approve the bill.  House and Senate committees are identified as the primary decision-makers within the Oregon Legislature, over both party caucuses and general leadership.  The Oregon Legislative Assembly has relatively few committees.  The committees often have a broad scope, and a large quantity of legislation moves through each one.  With fewer committees and fewer chairs, the individual chairs are more influential.  The Oregon Senate has eleven committees, and the House of Representatives has fifteen committees.  There are eight joint committees, one of which is the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which is also broken into another eight joint subcommittees.

In general, committees are expected to advance the majority party agenda.  They will usually move forward with legislation which the majority leadership approves of, and will consider bills to an extent that will make them easier to pass on the floor of the chamber.[9]  Leadership and general membership on committees will be selected with this in mind.  Chairs will almost always be members of the majority party, and a majority of seats on every committee will be filled by members of the majority party.  An exception to this in the 2015 session, although the Senate is controlled by a Democratic majority, President Courtney appointed Senator Brian Boquist, a Republican, to be chair of the Senate Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee.  Senator Boquist is himself a veteran, and seems to generally be in agreement with President Courtney in terms of what they want to see out of this committee.  Perhaps the greatest power of committee chairs is their responsibility for setting the committee agenda.  Chairs have the power to determine which bills will be heard in their committees, and which will not receive hearings or work sessions.  They also decide when bills will be heard, worked, and voted on.  This means that the chair ultimately decides which bills are given the opportunity to move and which bills will die in their committee.  Although committee chairs are empowered to make these decisions, they tend to be somewhat beholden to the wishes of higher leadership.  The Senate president and Speaker of the House have regular meetings with chairs of their committees to discuss what is currently happening with committee business.  Committee chairs may be directed by the president or Speaker as to how to handle specific legislation.  Chairs may be instructed to pull particular bills from the agenda.  While chairs are empowered to make their own decisions and not required to follow the direction of their leadership, it may be unadvisable not to, in the interest of preserving relationships.

In addition to the chair, all committees have at least one vice chair.  Senate committees usually have one vice chair, while House committees, which tend to be larger, usually have two.  In the 2015 session, Senate committees tend to be chaired by a Democrat, with a Republican serving as vice chair.  In this session, House committees also tend to be chaired by a Democrat, and have one Democrat and one Republican serving as co-vice chairs.  Allowing the minority party to hold positions in committee leadership may initially appear to be a show of bipartisanship, but it serves a more practical purpose.  Vice chairs function as liaisons between committee members and the chair.  They communicate the concerns of members, and advise the chair as to how the members intend to vote on particular bills.  Republican vice chairs will communicate the positions of Republican committee members, and Democrat vice chairs will communicate the positions of Democratic committee members.  Senate committees, which typically only have five members, do not require a second vice chair – the two majority party members will communicate directly with the chair.  When the chair is absent, a vice chair will preside over the committee meeting.  This puts the vice chair in a temporary position of considerable power – for the time being, they are the chair, and can exercise the full extent of that role.  However, the chair is unlikely to be absent for an important committee meeting, and would likely change the agenda if they had to be.   The influence of vice chairs depends a lot on the relationship between them and the chair of their committee.  The position itself does not guarantee much power, but, based on relationships, some chairs will allow their vice chair to have much more influence than others.

Although chairs are distinctly more influential than general committee members, individual legislators have a greater level of input in committees than in party caucuses, because fewer members sit on a given committee.[10]  Some committee chairs may be more conscious of creating a culture of bipartisanship within their committee, while others will simply focus on pushing through a partisan agenda.  If a committee acts along distinctly partisan lines, legislation with the approval of the majority party will necessarily make it through committee and to the floor of the chamber – the majority party has the majority of committee seats, so if membership is loyal to their party, bills do not need bipartisan support to move forward.  Despite this, some committee chairs will work towards bipartisanship as a matter of principle.  Others seek bipartisanship in the interest of building relationships, which can be capitalized on for support of their own bills being considered in other committees, or for floor votes.  This is particularly likely to be the case if a chair is carrying a bill for which he or she cannot anticipate support by every member of his or her own party.  Further, committee leaders may seek bipartisanship in their committees because bills are likely to have wider support on the House and Senate floors if they come out of committee having been supported by members of both parties.

In terms of committee leadership, the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee are particularly powerful.  This committee is comprised of members of both the House and the Senate, and has two co-chairs – one from each chamber.  For the 2015 session, the co-chairs are Senator Richard Devlin, and Representative Peter Buckley.  The Joint Committee on Ways and Means is in charge of state budget appropriations.  Any bill which is determined to cost the state money will have to go through Ways and Means.  The co-chairs, therefore, have enormous power in determining the fate of legislation, based on whether or not they ultimately decide to fund it.  Bills which pass through policy committees can still be killed by the Ways and Means co-chairs without ever making it to the floor of a chamber.

Unusual Circumstances

If there is no majority party, legislative leadership necessarily functions differently.  In 2003, the Oregon State Senate was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  After two months of negotiations, the parties were able to come to an agreement that put a Democrat in the role of Senate president, and a Republican as president pro tempore, with more responsibility than the position usually affords.  Most committee chair positions were given to Republicans, including all Ways and Means Subcommittees, although the position of Senate co-chair of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee was given to a Democrat.  The Democratic leader and Republican leader were made co-chairs of the Senate Rules Committee, which was also given an expanded role.[11]  When there is no majority party, the two parties are forced to collaborate more.  No legislation can be passed without votes from members of both parties, and the principal leader cannot direct committees to advance their own party’s agenda.  To a certain extent, this may be a good thing, however, it can also produce a stalemate in the legislature where important legislation cannot be passed.

            The Oregon Legislative Assembly is a highly political and partisan environment.  As such, leaders work to advance the interests of their party while performing their essential roles as legislators and leaders.  Leadership is important in the Oregon Legislature – leaders are powerful, and essential to the functioning of the body.  As in most organizations, legislative leadership is important on a number of levels.  Despite their important leadership positions and increased level of responsibility, legislative leaders must still fulfill their baseline duties as senators and representatives.  They are still expected to represent the interests of their constituents, and to respond to their needs and concerns.  Leaders carry bills just as regular members do, although the highest ranking leaders’ bills may carry greater weight.  While the principal leaders in both the House and the Senate will be from the majority party, there are ample leadership opportunities for members of the minority party.  Strong and effective leaders are an integral part of both party politics and the core organization of the legislature.

[1] Little, T. H., Deen, R., Clark, J. (2001) State legislative leaders’ careers: Policy and process expertise, sources of        policy information, career interests and term limits. Spectrum: the Journal of State Government, 74(1), 1-4.

[2] Office of the Secretary of State (2013). Oregon Blue Book. Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, Inc.

[3] Rosenthal, A. (2009). Engines of democracy: Politics and policymaking in state legislatures. Washington, D.C.:        CQ Press.

[4] Rosenthal, A. (2009). Engines of democracy: Politics and policymaking in state legislatures. Washington, D.C.:        CQ Press.

[5] Rosenthal, A. (2009). Engines of democracy: Politics and policymaking in state legislatures. Washington, D.C.:        CQ Press.

[6] Office of the Secretary of State (2013). Oregon Blue Book. Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, Inc.

[7] Clucas, R. (2005). The legislature. In R. A. Clucas, M. Henkels, & B. S. Steel (Eds.), Oregon politics and    government: Progressives versus conservative populists (115-133). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[8] Francis, W. L. (1985). Leadership, party caucuses, and committees in U.S. state legislatures. Legislative Studies       Quarterly, 10(2), 243-257. Retrieved from:


[9] Francis, W. L. (1985). Leadership, party caucuses, and committees in U.S. state legislatures. Legislative Studies       Quarterly, 10(2), 243-257. Retrieved from:          http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/stable/439726?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents

[10] Francis, W. L. (1985). Leadership, party caucuses, and committees in U.S. state legislatures. Legislative Studies     Quarterly, 10(2), 243-257. Retrieved from:          http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/stable/439726?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents

[11] Bend Bugle News Reports (2003, January 14). Split Oregon Senate picks Courtney as President. Bend Bugle.          Retrieved from: http://www.bendbugle.com/2003/01/split-oregon-senate-picks-courtney-as-president/

The Oregon Legislative Information System was another important source of factual information for this report.

Interviews with Bryan Gordon, Intern for Sentor Chuck Thomsen, and Jen Corbridge, Legislative Assistant for Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer provided further insight.

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