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Oregon State Politics: Legislative Leaders


A recent survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that fewer than twenty percent of respondents could name their state legislators. It may be reasonable to suppose, then, that fewer respondents still would have been able to expound on the hierarchical structures of the chambers and caucuses that further define the roles of their lawmakers. This supposition is not presented here as a means of indictment against those who identify with the majority of the survey’s respondents. In fact, the principle function of any government should be found in the peripheral protection and betterment people’s lives. The onus of governance, then, should rightfully be conferred unto those with the knowledge, ability, and desire to govern in good faith.

Still, many scholars in the field of community development would argue that the small group is the true unit of societal change. When local communities band together to solve the issues they collectively face, state and municipal governments are often relegated to systems of gratuitous bureaucracy. Notwithstanding, local communities banding together efficaciously happens to be an exception to the common American modus operandi; the people ordinarily wielding the most influence over the immediate material conditions of communities happen to be state legislators.

In any case, knowledge becomes the individual’s key to unlocking the social change they seek. Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat”. Working toward change, then, whether within or against the system, becomes predicated on a fundamental understanding of systemic machinations. And, if nothing else, suffice it to say that prison blueprints doubtless facilitate the inmate’s escape.

To begin, it bears mentioning that in most circumstances, state legislatures operate in many of the same ways that the United States Congress does. In fact, this is because Congressional structures and norms are the culmination of the structures and norms that were borrowed from legislative precedents long established in the original colonies. In Virginia, for instance, the legislature has roots that can be traced to the early seventeenth century. The original colonies first established for themselves bicameral institutions of government, with the exception of Georgia and Pennsylvania. These institutions were defined by the two chambers characteristic of all state legislatures today (save for the uniquely unicameral legislature of Nebraska) in which lawmakers debate policy and draft legislative solutions to the problems facing their constituents.

The two chambers in state legislatures are referred to as their lower and upper houses, with lawmakers in the upper houses often, though not always, serving longer terms than their colleagues in the lower houses. The upper houses of state legislatures are consistently referred to as either the senate or state senate, while the lower houses are more often than not referred to as their state’s house of representatives. Further, state legislatures are generally referred to as such, although they are, in some instances, called general assemblies, general courts, or in the case of Oregon, the Legislative Assembly. In Oregon, the upper chamber of the legislature has a senate president, a president pro tempore, and majority and minority leaders. The Oregon House of Representatives has a house speaker, a speaker pro tempore, a majority leader, minority leader, majority whip, and minority whip. Whips, however, are generally more affiliated with parties than official chamber leadership, and are something to which this paper will return.

The house speaker and senate president are not only the leaders of their respective chambers, they the leaders of their parties. In the former role, these premier members of the legislature assign their colleagues and subordinates to committees, appoint the chairs of those committees, refer bills to the committees they deem germane, manage administrative affairs, and, of course, preside over their chambers, facilitating legislative sessions and floor debate. The authority to recognize speakers, make parliamentary rulings, and to assign committees and appoint their chairs gives chamber leaders considerable control over the way policy debates are held in addition to the way votes take place. As leaders of their political parties, the heads of the senate and house further strategize around campaigns and legislation, substantiate and advance their party’s platform, and negotiate compromises in and between the parties and chambers in order to facilitate the general operations of the legislature.

I n accordance with Congressional patterns, the Oregon Legislative Assembly biennially confers power unto its leaders through abstruse party considerations of optics, the candidates’ relationships in the executive branch, their fundraising abilities and efforts, municipal and commerce alliances, and political capital. Preceding the first legislative session after an election, high ranking lawmakers and other active party members meet to discuss, nominate and vote on positions of leadership that they can then to bring to the legislature for a vote. This foregoing convocation of legislators and party officials is also where ex officio positions of leadership are decided. Ex officio is employed here in its latin intent to mean by right of office. Ergo, the powers of ex officio positions of leadership are those that are inherent in the responsibilities and authorities imbued in important committee chairs, such as those to Ways and Means or Revenue.

In Oregon, the only constitutional officers to speak of are the senate president, the senate president pro tempore, the house speaker, and the speaker pro tempore. Remaining positions of leadership manifest uniquely across state legislatures, based on factors such as the legislature’s professionalization status, its resources, party control, size, et cetera. In the Oregon Legislative Assembly, whips are key players in both the senate and the house. These aptly named representatives of their party are handlers of sorts. Much of the work involved in being a party whip has to do with providing legislative support for the members of one’s caucus as well as performing certain administrative aspects that ultimately facilitate party goals. As official representatives of their party, whips are champions for their chamber caucuses and for policies pertaining to their party’s platform. There are numerous ways in which one can whip, but as extensions of party and legislative leadership, it is not unheard of for whips to act as the police and gatekeepers of their chamber’s caucus.

Party caucuses are embodied separately in the upper and lower chambers of state legislatures, reinforcing an inherent culture of estrangement between the senate and the house. Still, the ruling party in Oregon remains a coherent gestalt, serving its members and leaders in the house and senate strategically in order to advance the primary doctrines of its platform. Specifically, the Democratic Party of Oregon prioritizes business in its first article. This is a consequential acknowledgment of what truly drives the liberal agenda in Oregon. Following economics as the Democrats’ primary concern are articles addressing education, the environment, foreign policy and national security, good governance, and so forth. Caucuses, then, are further divided into specific areas of policy concern.

Returning to some structural characteristics, the differences in nomenclature between state legislatures do not constitute any substantive divergences in their legislative operations. Internally, however, the hierarchical distinctions between the upper and lower houses within state legislatures represent important components to understanding the conduct of legislative leaders and party caucuses. For even in state politics, the separate legislative bodies have been shown to foment separate clubhouse cultures reverent of internal echelons.

The original intent behind the two legislative chambers is often reconstructed in arguments for the legislative body’s ability as a whole to consider, in more measured and complete terms, the bills that it passes. In practice, however, this bicameral system often allows feckless politicians to redirect public misgivings toward a rhetorically antagonistic chamber. Moreover, it promotes an unproductive exclusivity amongst members of the same chamber, despite party lines or ideologies. In Oregon, there isn’t much that could legitimate Democrats capitulating to such a slight minority of Republicans. The shrewdest route, then, to protect the interests of every member of one’s chamber has been through the use of procedural obstructions.

Senate President Peter Courtney is Oregon’s longest serving legislator and Senate President in the state’s history. Yet, the Senator’s long standing tradition of considering only the bills he knows to be able to comfortably pass in the senate is steadily drawing criticism from even members of his own party. In 2017, for instance, a rent control bill that passed the house was shot down in the senate due to a lack of interest among both Republicans and Democrats. Prioritizing the veneer of cohesion in his chamber over the welfare of the citizens of Oregon, Senator Courtney ignored the bill, effectively killing it.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan took issue with this approach to legislative leadership when she served in the Oregon House of Representatives. “You can’t put the same people in charge - under the same rules, under the same caucus - and get substantially different results”, Fagan told Dirk VanderHart for OPB after Courtney’s refusal to consider the 2017 house bill aimed at rent control. She went on to cast the lone vote in her party against Courtney’s ninth confirmation for senate president after she, herself, was initially confirmed as an Oregon State Senator in 2019. Fagan cited the Senate President’s gross misconduct, and maintains a power struggle with Courtney to this day as she and leaders in the legislature separately petition the State Supreme Court for control of legislative redistricting privileges.

State Senator and Majority Whip Lew Frederick, on the other hand, sees Senate President Peter Courtney in a different light. Also speaking to VanderHart for OPB, Senator Frederick offered that, in his view, Courtney has taken an approach from the perspective of “I want to get something accomplished, and I don’t want the Senate to look bad trying to get something accomplished…”. Frederick continues, “I think he believes that the whole Senate works better when we work together, not just spend our time attacking each other.”

This specific instantiation of power dynamics within the Oregon Legislative Assembly is meant to speak to the inherent divisiveness of bicameral institutions of government. Returning to more foundational framework, however, the Legislative Assembly typifies a one to two ratio in its chambers, although somewhat counterintuitively. In one chamber, sixty elected members of the Oregon House of Representatives each serve two year terms for just over sixty thousand constituents. Only thirty elected members of the Oregon State Senate, then, each serve four year terms for constituencies of nearly one hundred thirty thousand people. Even upon a cursory consideration of this system, one could easily ascertain how it could foment trivial pecking orders through pomp and circumstance.

State senators are generally considered more important than their counterparts in the house, whose high rate of turnover in Oregon is indicative of the state’s legislature being one that is semi-professional. Also termed hybrid or grey legislatures, these are institutions that fall somewhere between operating at a part time and full time capacity. In Oregon, the average legislative session amounts to only three months out of every two years. Accordingly, most legislators identify legislating as an ancillary vocation to their medical practices or law firms. After all, the salaries for elected officials in the Oregon Legislative Assembly are modest, as are staffing budgets. Peverill Squire and Gary Moncrief, in State Legislatures Today, note that “Professional legislators are not just longer serving but also better equipped as policymakers for reasons beyond their longevity.”

One of these reasons likely amounts to the inclination of individual lawmakers in professional legislatures to assert their independence from party caucuses. Others can be found in the higher roll call vote attendance that comes with professionalization, a marked improvement in legislative efficiency overall, increased efficiency in policy mediation, greater flexibility and the chambers’ consequent ability to quickly pass corrective legislation, and the ways in which professional legislatures foster movements toward better defining, and even reforming, the processes of government.

The state of Oregon may further be characterized by its moralistic political culture, such as the characterization was formulated and defined by political scientist Daniel J. Elazar. Along with the individualistic and traditionalistic cultures that amalgamate the incoherent national political culture of the contemporary United States at large, moralistic cultures are those wherein the “commonwealth conception as the basis for democratic government” is emphasized through ideations of citizen participation and policy that advances the greater good.

This moralistic political culture in Oregon is interpreted through the liberal pragmatism of free market economy based solutions. This is unmistakable in the DPO’s platform, as well as in the type of legislation that is or is not pursued by party and chamber leaders in the legislature. Here there should be made a concession of the limited abilities of a semi-professional legislature, and yet, the liberal majority of voters in Oregon also tend to subscribe to the ideations of identity politics whereby the co-opted success of one privileged person of color, or that of any other minority, amounts to satisfactory progress being made toward social equity. This paradigm, of course, exists with the caveat of the successful person in question primarily pursuing the interests of capital over the interests of the community of their target identity.

With a Democratic supermajority in both the house and senate of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, and with proposals of regressive taxes to tackle a looming budget crisis, the 2021 legislative session is shaping up to be another performatively contentious struggle for legislative leaders and party caucuses attempting to strike a balance between the self serving and the progress of public good. Unfortunately for the public good, government leaders and political architects in the state are incentivized to prioritize commerce over life changing social programs. As such, the state government has demonstrably embraced the performatively liberal, moralistic political culture of the state at large, whereby tenants of white nationalism are legitimated alongside policy proposals genuinely intended to better the lives of underserved citizens. This is evinced not only in legislative leaders prioritizing the external perception their chamber’s cohesion, but also in their having a greater respect for institution than people.

This exploration set out to analyze some of the intricacies relating to legislative leaders and party caucus through structural delineations and examples within the Oregon Legislative Assembly. It further intended to lay out an actionable means of contextualizing the information it has presented. For whatever information this exploration provided, was done so in the hope of equipping individuals with the structural and political knowledge that is integral to the advancement of their communities.

There remains a consensus among community development specialist that in the small group is found the true unit of change in our society. If a more equitable society is desired, then, the talents and abilities of individuals must be employed to address the concerns of their immediate communities. Familiarizing one’s community with the internal power structures and motivations of legislative leaders is one valuable way to engage in social reform by redirecting the conversation, as well as any financial allocations and physical efforts, toward the areas of greatest impact. It may be more prudent, for instance, for an organization to route funds and energy toward service work through the distribution of food or supplies instead of pursuing appeasements of identity politics to legislative leaders who are more interested in optics and the advancement of their careers. In the end, leadership in the Oregon Legislative Assembly can be defined by titles and political machinations. True power, on the other hand, remains the prerogative of people who care.