Legislature 2021: Less drama, more of the people's work
Oregon families and businesses are reeling financially, the state is in the midst of an unparalleled health crisis, and the Capitol building in Salem itself is under threat from potential extremist violence. This moment in time calls for a level-headed legislative session, where lawmakers take care of the immediate business at hand with no walkouts, inflammatory rhetoric or other wackiness.
With Democrats fully in control of state government, it is up to the leaders of that party to keep the focus on a few major issues: the pandemic, the economy and how state agencies have or haven't performed in response to these crises. Toss in the still painful memories of last summer's wildfires, and the Legislature has a very full plate. Republicans, meanwhile, have an obligation to stay in their seats — remote or otherwise — and do the people's business.
The 2021 legislative session, which belatedly gets underway Thursday, Jan. 21, will be unique. Between now and likely April, lawmakers will conduct much of their work via video conference call. We won't see floor sessions — in which both chambers vote yea or nay on bills — for weeks to come.
So now, more than ever, we need extraordinary efforts by lawmakers to create an air of normality. The onus is on Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, Senate President Peter Courtney and all Democratic committee chairs to go the extra mile and make sure their Republican colleagues feel like they've been listened to, and to give them the full opportunity to affect legislation.
That's easier to do when sitting on the dais, looking directly at each other, or stepping outside to talk sotto voce and to negotiate in good faith. It'll be tougher to do via conference call. But having the gavel means bringing out the best in committee members, regardless of party.?
Republicans will be tempted to walk out again, but they should resist.
The Republican second, end-of-session walkout in 2019 turned out to be successful, partially because Courtney botched the Democratic response so badly when he was forced to admit he'd bluffed and didn't have enough Democratic votes to pass legislation addressing carbon emissions. The 2020 walkout scorched the entire legislative session. Among the vital work that didn't get done was legislation to address wildfires. Months later, the state was wracked with the worst fires in living memory.
The GOP didn't pay any price for walking out. In fact, it profited: Republicans fundraised off it, got national media attention, and, last fall, gained legislative seats in the timber-rich Coast Range counties.?
So, the temptation will be to walk out again. But there are bills to pass, budgets to build, policies to promote. Much of the work benefits GOP constituents.
It's not much fun being in the minority, but those of us who have covered the Legislature the longest remember the years in which the GOP had the gavels and the Dems were in the minority.
It's also time to avoid craziness: Governing has always been rife with goofy sideshow shenanigans, but it's gotten worse lately. Both parties need to ignore that stuff, to the degree they can, and focus on policies and budgets. We have a lawmaker, Mike Nearman, R-Independence, under investigation for sneaking violent protesters into the Capitol in December. That investigation is in the hands of the State Police; lawmakers should let it play out and not get distracted. Another House member, Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, has been overly theatrical in his resistance to social distancing and mask wearing. He may have gone completely around the bend this month, backing a new group called — we're not making this up — Citizens Against Tyranny, which formed last month to recall any lawmakers who back Gov. Kate Brown's efforts to stop the spread of the virus. A quick reminder that the virus has infected almost 130,000 of our residents and the death toll in the state has surpassed 1,700.?
So far, we're pleased to note, the rest of the GOP lawmakers have yet to sign onto this nutty notion.
The melodrama and violence is playing out big-time in Washington, D.C. It could return to Salem in the not-too-distant future. Lawmakers should do their best to avoid it.
It's hard to build better working relationships on conference calls, but we are encouraged to hear from some legislators that they are actively reaching across the aisle to make personal connections with people who live in different communities and have different priorities and views of the world. The current collision of crises — COVID-19, the economy, societal unrest and recovery from and prevention of wildfires — ought to have a unifying effect. If, as its leaders promise, the Legislature deals with those issues first, and fairly, it will have done everything the public should expect in this extraordinary time.
It's a unique legislative session. Together, legislators also can make it a productive one.
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