It’s an easy thing (a time-honored tradition, in fact) to bad-mouth the Oregon Legislature, which opened its 2019 session yesterday and is scheduled to meet in Salem until the end of June.
To be sure, it’s a certain bet that the Legislature this session will do some dopey things, and will deserve at least some of the criticism that onlookers and citizens will deliver.
With that said, and before the session heats up, here are some other points worth making about Oregon’s Legislature:
First, even though we do pay lawmakers (a laughably small sum, considering the work most of them put in), this is still, for all intents and purposes, a citizen Legislature. Generally speaking, we don’t yet have full-time legislators, although many legislators would tell you that their duties take up plenty of time even when the Legislature isn’t in session.
The second point flows from that first one: In part because this is a citizen Legislature, most legislators are legitimately interested in what their constituents have to say. (Legislators who are not might have a hard time getting re-elected.) A story by reporter Claire Withycombe of the Oregon Capital Bureau outlined some of the ways that regular people who don’t have access to high-powered lobbyists can connect with their legislators.
Of course, it helps to know who your legislators are, and our guess is that many people would fail this relatively simple test. If you want to find out, though, there’s an easy way to do so: The Legislature’s website includes a nifty feature where all you have to do is enter your address to find out who’s representing you in Salem. The feature also includes links to your legislators’ web pages and email addresses.
If you want to send an email address to your legislator, feel free to do that: Just be sure you write it in your own words. That’s much more valuable to a legislator than if you just copied and pasted some boilerplate language from an advocacy group; legislators discount that sort of message. (Snail mail also is accepted at the Capitol.)
If there’s an issue that really engages you, think about joining an organization that feels the same way: There’s power in numbers in Salem.
It also helps if you do some research before you fire off that email, and the Legislature operates an invaluable site that features up-to-the-minute information, including updated versions of bills and current calendars. The site, the Oregon Legislative Information System, can be accessed at this address: https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2019R1. If you have any interest in legislative doings, it’ll be worth your while to spend some time exploring the site, which boasts a wealth of other information — including lists of bills that your legislator is sponsoring.
A couple of additional points are worth keeping in mind as the session gets rolling:
Although news accounts of the Legislature often focus on partisan rifts (and there will be partisan rifts), it’s not at all unusual for legislators to work with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. In this regard, the Legislature is different than the U.S. Congress, which seems to be permanently paralyzed in partisan gridlock.
Remember as well that legislators face a daunting workload: Nearly 1,500 bills already have been introduced in this session and that number will grow dramatically over the next few weeks. Most of those bills will not pass; many, in fact, are essentially dead on arrival. (One of the undervalued functions of a Legislature is to kill bills.) Even with that high mortality rate, it still amounts to a lot of work in a short period of time.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t chide a legislator for what you think is an ill-advised bill or vote.
After all, the Legislature convenes to do the work of the people. It works better if the people are watching.