by Kevin Douglas Hay
Legislative committees are the foundation of state government in Oregon. From their humble beginnings in pre-statehood to their vast breadth and scope today, legislative committees exert tremendous influence in creating and shaping public policy. Though the chief executive and party leader, the governor, may have the power to veto legislation, it is the legislative committees that have the ability to determine the content and fate of legislation. Legislative committees create a forum for citizens, professionals, and experts to express support of, opposition to, or an opinion of, proposed legislation. But does this power hamper, hinder or enhance public policy and serve the wills and needs of Oregonians? Legislative committees are the gatekeepers of public policy, yet they are subject to the wills and whims of those who control them.
The first committees formed in Oregon predate statehood by eighteen years and would set the tone for the Oregon legislature for the next one hundred and seventy-four years. The Provisional Legislative Period began after the death of fur trapper and entrepreneur Ewing young in 1841 when Americans settlers living in the Columbia District/Oregon Country under joint jurisdiction by British and American forces, attempted to settle the credits and debts of Young’s estate. Two committees were formed, an executive committee and a legislative committee. But political tensions between the United States and Great Britain were strained as control of the territory was still being disputed, and the committees were abandoned after failing to produce any laws. Two years later in February 1843, the Wolf Meetings convened to address attacks by wild animals on livestock. A committee was created to discuss the ways and means of protecting settler’s herds. At a second meeting in March of that same year, the committee presented its resolutions to the community, but as the meeting wore on the discussion changed from the protection of livestock to a appeal for the creation of a civil government “for the civil and military protection of this colony” (Oregon.gov, 2015) A committee was formed to consider the potential of forming a government and in a public meeting held on May 2, 1843 the initial findings of this committee were rejected, primarily by a group of French-Canadians who may have been influenced by John McLoughlin, who stood to lose his de facto authority of the disputed country. Another legislative committee formed, made up of nine members, and set out to create a code of laws and operating procedures for a new provisional government. (It also created four sub-committees.) This committee created the Organic Law of 1843, whose articles were voted on and adopted in July of that year. Organic Law created provisions for a three member executive committee, maintained the nine member legislative committee, and included the creation of a judiciary system, a militia, a system for dealing with land claims, and four districts for the “purpose of administering governmental functions.” (Tollenaar, 2006) It also created a unicameral legislature, the legislative committee, and required that it meet twice a year, June and December. In June of 1844 when the first provisional legislative session convened it created an additional sub-committee and in the session of 1845 three more sub-committees were created and the number of legislators increased to twelve. Because there was no procedure to amend the Organic Law and a dispute over the intent of law threatened to disrupt the newly formed legislature, 1845 saw the restructuring of the law. Chief among the reforms was the vesting of power from a three member executive committee to a single executive, the Governor and the reformation of legislative committee into the House of Representatives.
Legislative committees form the backbone of lawmaking, one of the “three main functions performed by legislators and legislatures.” (Clucas, 2005) Committees consist of House and Senate members from each political party, led by a chairperson and vice chairperson (or co-chairpersons and co-vice chairpersons in the case of Joint committees) all of which are appointed by the President of Senate or the Speaker of the House. Members may serve on two committees within their legislative body and one joint legislative committee, consisting of members from both the Senate and the House. The purpose of committees is to address and shape specific public policy areas such education, health and welfare, and the environment. Committees receive input regarding current legislative bills during public hearings. Testimony from citizens, advocates, professionals, and other government officials help legislative committees to form opinions or make recommendations on legislation. Testimony given during public hearings in committee is a form of direct democracy and civic engagement that truly allows for the citizen/constituents’ voice to be heard. Women, men and children of all ages and backgrounds who would benefit or be adversely affected by the passage or blockage of by legislative, action expend their own resources and time to appear and testify in a committee hearing in hopes that their expertise or passionate plea will hold sway over committee members. Experts or those knowledgeable in specific areas also provide testimony during public hearings. It is an opportunity for committee members to be presented with facts, figures, and data which is relevant to the specific piece of legislation being considered. Legislative committee work sessions give committee members the opportunity to discuss, deliberate, decide the content of, or amend current purposed, or modify existing legislation and vote to recommend a piece of legislation be passed to floor, Senate or House, for debate and vote by that legislative body.
But much legislation never makes it to committee and even more legislation dies in committee. This is because of the immense power wielded by the President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, and legislative committee chairpersons. During the 2013 Regular Session of the 77th Legislative Assembly, two thousand five hundred and ten bills were introduced. Of those, approximately 31.3% or seven hundred and eighty-seven became laws. (Oregon Bluebook, 2015) Only one of the one thousand and twenty-three other bills that did not pass in the legislature was vetoed by the governor. (Two other bills were subject to line-item vetoes.)
Though it may appear that the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House have the ability to steer legislation, the true ultimate authority lies with committee chairpersons. The leader of the legislative body, Senate or House, appoints committee members and chairpersons and assigns bills to the appropriate committee, but it is the chairperson or co-chairperson that sets the agenda for the specific committee. The committee chairperson decides which bills the committee will review, or not, during the course of the legislative session. This gives the committee chairperson considerable power over the legislative process. If a chairperson is not in favor of a particular piece of legislation assigned to her or his committee, s/he can choose to omit it from the agenda of that committee for that legislative session. Some bills die in committee without ever being reviewed, others get voted down in committee, while other bills report out of committee with no recommendation. (And die soon afterward on the floor of the House or Senate.) It is possible for a second vote on a bill voted down in committee. If a motion to reconsider carries before the committee report has been dropped on the desk of President of the Senate or Chief Clerk of the House, a bill may be voted on again in committee. However, perhaps in an attempt to balance the power of committee chairpersons, an individual committee member may move to “table” a bill. Tabling a bill effectively stops any further action from be taken on that specific piece of legislation and the motion to table a bill may not be debated.
Because Oregon legislative process requires a bill to pass in both bodies of the legislature means that perspective legislation must pass through committee in the Senate and the House. Additionally, if the language of a bill is not identical upon being passed by both bodies, it will returned to its original committee to alter the language of the bill. If neither body is willing to concede changes of language, the bill will be referred to Conference Committee to work out a compromise. If Conference Committee can reach a compromise, the bill returns to both legislative bodies for another vote.
Committee chairpersons and committee members have the ability to control which bills survive the committee process and which bills will not. This gives them tremendous influence over the entire legislative process and can set the tone and focus for the legislative session.
The State of Oregon legislative body currently consists of forty-two legislative committees. Sixteen Joint Committees, including eight Ways and Means sub-committees, fifteen House Committees, and eleven Senate Committees. Each committee corresponds to a particular area of public policy and has an equivalent. Committee appointments change every legislative session and are made prior to the commencement of the session. A committee may have as few as four members (House Committee Conduct) or as many as twenty-four (Joint Ways and Means Committee.) Committees exist in six different forms that serve different purposes. In 2009, the Statesman Journal made this distinction between the six forms committees:
- Standing Committees: Function while the Legislative Assembly is in session primarily to consider legislation which has been referred to a committee according to subject matter. The committee holds meetings and public hearings, debates and revises measures, and makes recommendations to the full chamber.
- Task Forces: Special legislative groups formed for a limited period to study one particular problem or topic.
- Interim Committees: Created jointly by both houses and serve between sessions. They hold public meetings, study certain areas that may require legislative solutions, prepare reports, and make recommendations to the next Legislative Assembly.
- Statutory Committees: Function during both the regular and interim sessions. The primary function of these committees, which are created by statute, is to study proposals for legislation and to provide continuity for the legislature from session to session. The most powerful statutory committee is the Emergency Board. (Also includes Legislative Fiscal Office, Legislative Revenue Office, Legislative Administration Committee, Legislative Counsel Committee, Commission on Indian Affairs.)
- Special Committees: Single, specified purposes; Conference Committees to resolve differences between the two houses on legislative matters. (Currently Special Joint Committee on Measure 91, and Senate Committee on Conduct.)
- Committee of the Whole considers legislation under informal procedures.
Of the 42 committees the most important are the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, the House Revenue Committee and the Joint Ways and Means and its eight sub-commissions. Over 80 legislative members serve on these 11 committees. These committees deliberate, define and decide how money is raised and spent by the State of Oregon. The Revenue Committees handles issues relating to how the state generates revenue. Whenever a piece of legislation impacts revenues of the state in regards to the collection of, instatement of, or alteration of, fees from licenses, and taxes, it must pass through both revenue committees in order to become law. Sometimes this requires four separate committees working together (and approval from both chambers) in order to pass a legislation. (However; it should be noted that any bills seeking to increase revenues must be generated in the House of Representatives.) Additionally, every bill which may impact the state’s revenue is reviewed and evaluated by the Legislative Revenue Office. The Legislative Revenue Office is a non-partisan department made up of revenue specialists whose job is to report the potential revenue impacts for a piece of purposed legislation. The head of the Legislative Revenue Office is the Legislative Revenue Officer who is appointed jointly by the House and Senate Revenue Committees and approved by both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. If it is determined that the legislation will have an impact of revenue, then a Revenue Impact Statement, generated by the LRO will accompany the legislation upon reporting out of committee. Typically, if the revenue impact is greater than $50,000 the legislation will be sent to Revenue Committee for additional revenue assessment.
By comparison, and with the exception of tax reform, the tasks of the House and Senate Revenue Committee may seem rather ubiquitous to those of the Joint Ways and Means Committee and its sub-committees. The focus of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, and its sub-committees is the appropriation of the state budget. Though the Governor is responsible for creating the State budget, it is the Joint Ways and Means Committee that determines budget policy. These committees deliberate, investigate and determine how state revenues will be dispersed to meet the budgetary goals set forth by the governor. The President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives appoint the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. Two of the members appointed from each chamber must have had previous experience on the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. If the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the President of the Senate is a member, he or she may assign an alternate from among the members of the respective chamber to act as a member of the committee except that he or she shall not preside if the Speaker or President is chair of the committee. The President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives each appoints one co-chair for the joint committee from their respective chamber. These co-chairs of the joint committee alternate as presiding officers. The co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means have the power to investigate, either through the entirety of the committee or by one of the subcommittees, complaints about the management or conduct of any of the state institutions, departments, officers or activities which state money has been used in support of, or for which appropriations may be made in the future. However, for legislation to move forward in the Joint Committees requires a “yes” vote by a majority of committee members of both chambers. Like the Revenue committees, the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, and its sub-committees, relies on an non-partisan administrative office to aide in its determination of financial impacts. But instead of revenue impacts, the Joint Committee is concerned with fiscal impacts. The Legislative Fiscal Office was created in 1959 as a non-partisan, independent, permanent professional support staff office to the Legislature it presents facts and recommendations to the Legislative Assembly about the Governor’s budget. The Legislative Fiscal Office provides estimates concerning state expenditures and the fiscal implications of the functioning of the state and state agencies. The Legislative Fiscal Officer is appointed by the Joint Committee on Ways and Means and approved by the Senate President and speaker of the House. During session, The Legislative fiscal Office provides analysis and review of Governor’s budget proposal, performs budget analysis and recommendations for budget policy and budget bills, reviews measures for fiscal impact and creates fiscal impact statements for bills scheduled for work in legislative committees, aides in the development of the Legislature’s adopted balanced budget, and responds to legislative members questions regarding state finances and agency budgets.
Though these committees wield considerable power over fiscal and revenue budget and policy issues of the state, the chairs, co-chairs and members of these committees serve at the will of and are chosen by the Senate President and/or the Speaker of the House. Additionally, the professionals who provide support for these committees are appointed by committee members and approved by the leader of each chamber potentially increasing the power exerted by the Senate President, Speaker of the House and committee chairs. So much so that the Governors role as preparer of the budget is diminished to just the that. For all intents and purposes, it is the committees which influence and determine the financial course of the state.
The remaining 31 committees address all other aspects of purposed legislation that has the potential to impact the lives of Oregonians. Some issues are so complex that special committees are created out of necessity. Such is the case with the passage of Measure 91, the legalization of recreational marijuana. Though created by the initiative process and passed by voters in 2014, Measure 91 presented many challenges to the state legislature. So many in fact that the special committee has been divided into 2 separate committees. The major issues revolve around medical marijuana, (passed by voters in 1998) and city/local jurisdictional ability to tax marijuana sales. Despite both having been passed by voters, the state legislature, via the committee process, has chosen to exert its power over the will of the people and make changes to both the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana law. A true testament to the power of committees.
The history, purpose, process, and function of legislative committees have demonstrated the immense power held by committees, their chairperson(s), and the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House. Though many would argue that the ultimate power rests with the Executive Branch of the Oregon Legislature and the veto power of the governor, this perception is, according to Senate President Peter Courtney, “a myth perpetuated and distorted by the media.” (Courtney, 2015) The governor may prepare the state’s budget, committees and sub-committees are “where the work is done.” Committees are a “check on power”, not only in regards to the power of the executive branch, but also in the sense of bi-partisanship, “you either come together or you don’t get anywhere.” One would expect the President of the Senate to be a powerful position, one of steering legislation and perpetuating the agenda of the majority party through committee assignments of legislative members and the assigning of bills to committees, but President Courtney doesn’t see himself in a position of power. Rather, he describes himself and his position of that of “decider and decision maker.” Some Senate Presidents may load committees in favor of their party or refer only those bills from his or her party to committees, Courtney believes in proportionality and fairness when making committee assignments. Prior to the legislative session he asks each member of the senate to provide him with a list of their top 4 preferred committee assignments. President Courtney then interviews each member and uses his intuition and instinct to decide what is best. It is a member’s ability to be a generalized, big picture team player that Courtney is most keen on. He likes to put members outside of their comfort zone and into a position of generalist rather than an expert which he believes will cause that member to be even more diligent in his or hers assigned committee. Above all, it is his brilliance in dealing with people and seeing them as human beings that enables him to bring legislative members together who have an attitude much the same as his, “I don’t like it, but let’s get it done.” Whereas his approach to assigning members to committees may seem laborious, Courtney’s approach to assigning bills to committee is somewhat simple. While there may be temptation to only assign bills from his majority party to committees, President Courtney believes in doing what is best for the state first and foremost. The way Courtney puts it, “I am not just the leader of my caucus, I am also President of the Senate. I am responsible for keeping the engine running.” He believes that the bi-partisan act of standing up to support one another and by keeping our word will save the state. But when it comes to power, President Courtney makes it clear that committee chairs are the most powerful individuals in the state legislature. Committee chairs, “control the gavel” they decide which bills get put on the agenda and scheduled for hearings.
Senator Mark Hass of State Senate District 14, Chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee for the 78th Legislative Assembly attributes the power of committees to their strong structure, leeway and freedom allows for public interface in the form of testimony and recommendations which committees weighs heavily when researching resolutions to policy issues. Hass believes that, “healthy relationships,” built on “inclusiveness, information and communication” make for a well-functioning committee, while the ability to be “honest, keep your word” and use “appropriate silence” are the hallmarks of an exceptional committee member, and an “openness” to bipartisanism characterized by an “I hear you” attitude echoes the, “I don’t like it, but let’s do it” sentiments of President Courtney.
In regards to the power of a committee chairperson setting the agenda and scheduling hearings for bill Hass’s first consideration is for high priority fixes and their ability to address the problems, followed by the careful examination of inaction – will the problem get worse if the issue is not addressed? Bipartisanship should play a role committees, and it is preferable for a member from the minority party to be a committee vice-chair because it provides “some authority for checks and balances” with regards to the majority party agenda.
But both President Courtney and Senator Hass personal style may be the semblance of a by-gone era governing. Increasing partisanship and the allure of personal power may produce a very different legislature in the near future. Already the state has seen chamber leaders who assign committee members based on their ability to be a team player and follow the party agenda as laid out by the caucus leader. There is potential for bills created by the minority party never seeing the light of a committee hearing room due to party or personal politics. It is also very possible that personal politics even among members of the same political party may have an influence on the agenda and schedule of a particular committee.
But there is a fundamental gap in information gathered from committees. Because there are so many committees, and granted that each legislative member serves on between 2 and 4 separate committees, and because there is so much information generated around individual issues, (this includes meetings with advocates and constituent correspondence) members must rely on, and be attentive to the manner in which they receive information from other committees regarding bills that are to be voted on during chamber sessions. Majority reports, and minority reports, are generated as a bill is reported out of committee. These reports include information, findings, and opinions of the from testimony and work groups received in the committee to which the bill was assigned. Additionally, members my attempt to garner the support of other members in hopes that they will vote favorably, or not, on a particular piece of legislation. This can create a catch-22, of which only those members keen enough may be able to circumnavigate.
The problem arises when a member has to choose between the will of his or her constituents and the compromises that are sometimes necessary to move forward their own agenda or the agenda of their constituents on other issues. In short, members must pick and choose their battles and do their due diligence on bills in other committees. One particular scenario could play out in the form of a bill in a committee that a particular member is not on but effects his or her constituency. Additionally, our hypothetical member may need the support of a member from that committee in order to pass his or her own bill. Let’s say that the committee reports the bill out of committee and recommends that the bill not be passed. Let’s also say that the non-passage of the bill will affect our member’s district negatively and the people of that district desire the bill to be passed. What should our hypothetical member do? Should he or she vote according to the wishes of his or her district, or should our member vote in support of their colleague in order to acquire that member’s support on his or her own legislation? As if this scenario isn’t dizzying enough, what happens when members vote on a bill from a standpoint of personal preference instead of making an informed decision? Committees certainly hold the reins of power in the Oregon Legislature, but there is also the very real potential, due to the sheer number of committees, that some information gets lost in transmission.
The 90 individual members of the Oregon State Legislature do not constitute the true power of the Oregon Legislature, it is the committees of which they are members and chairpersons of that wield the ultimate power in the state. A single piece of legislation has a very small chance of becoming a law. It must pass through the desks of the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House and committees in both chambers. It must pass through the lens of personality and party politics in both chambers. And even if that legislation reaches the governor’s desk it must be signed off on by the President and Speaker before it is signed into law or vetoed. But, what some assume to be the ultimate power of the legislature and the Executive Branch can be usurped by a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to override a veto.
Committees represent the real power of the legislature, it is here that the will of the people is heard and brought to light. It is here in open view of the public that democracy takes place. And it is here at the dynamic interface between the public, party politics and personality shapes and defines Oregon and lives of Oregonians.
Clucas, Richard et al. “Oregon Politics and Government: Progress Versus Populists.” Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Tollenaar, Ken. “A Brief History of Oregon County Government.” Association of Oregon Counties. January, 2006. http://www.aocweb.org/crp/Portals/1/RoadManual/Chapters/History%20of%20Oregon%20Counties.pdf
History of the Oregon State Legislature. Statesman Journal.com. Gannett. 4 March 2009. http://archive.statesmanjournal.com/article/99999999/STATE/50107007/History-Oregon-Legislative-Assembly
How Bills Become Laws. Oregon State Legislature. 2015. https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx
How an Idea Really Becomes a Law: What Only Jacques Cousteau Can Know. Office of Legislative Council. http://www.lc.state.or.us/pdfs/lr_article_body.pdf
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Oregon’s Legislative Assembly. Oregon Blue Book. Oregon Secretary of State. 2015. http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/legislative/recordsguides/legislative_guide/History.html
Oregon Legislative Records Guide: Oregon Legislative Assembly History. Oregon Secretary of State. 2015. http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/legislative/recordsguides/legislative_guide/History.html
Statistical Summary of the 77th Legislative Assembly. Oregon Bluebook, Oregon Secretary of State. 2015. http://bluebook.state.or.us/state/legis/legis18.htm
Hass, Mark. Personal interview. 14 April 2015.
Courtney, Peter. Personal interview. 5 May 2015.