Writings and observations

The gang that could get something done

The 2005 Oregon legislative session left a lot of Oregonians feeling sour on Salem. It failed to address a string of issues and failed to pass a clutch of ideas that had widespread support. And the governor, Ted Kulongoski, seemed to be painfully detached from the proceedings (a contrast to his Washington counterpart, Christine Gregoire, who brokered several big legislative deals that same year).

Oregon Senate adjourns sine dieOn Thursday, in just under six hours – one of the shortest if not the shortest special sessions on record in Oregon – both legislature and governor may have done a lot to repair their reputations.

Remember: This was no slam dunk. There were plenty of calls for Kulongoski to call the session, but doing it entailed risk. Special sessions have a way of either blowing up or of just behaving poorly. As this one ended, Senate President Peter Courtney reflected on how in his long legislative career he’d been through 16 (of the total 36) special sessions, and didn’t think well of most. One, he recalled, lasted 32 days. In general, he said, when he took over the job as president of the Senate, the thing he dreaded most was heading into a special session.

There are reasons for that. As he pointed out, legislators who go to a special are there for a few specific topics mostly not of their making. They have no committee meetings (or few of them) to go to, and little to do. They’re being asked to serve almost as rubber stamps. The usual circumstances are not propitious.

The preparation for this one was solid, however, and cooperation seemed to be close to universal. Having called the session, and in a year looking ever more perilous for him politically, Kulongoski involved himself quite directly in this one. Both Courtney and House Speaker Karen Minnis apparently got into it as thoroughly, both with agendas of their own, including the payday loan regulation on Minnis’ part and Jessica’s law on Courtney’s. for the space of one day, everyone seemed to take a deep breath and say, “okay, let’s do this.”

Oregon Senate adjourns sine dieIt did seem universal. Courtney: “Today is amazing . . . Every time I looked out over the chamber, there was a quorum . . . You responded to a person.” And: “This process worked the way it is supposed to work in a special session.” The atmosphere was much the same in the House.

Nor were the bills jammed through without discussion. Each one was discussed, maybe most notably some of the discussion on Jessica’s Law (which we’ll cover in a separate post). the feeling wasn’t rushed. It just didn’t dawdle, and it didn’t hang, because people wanted to get the work done. The agreement on the issues was sweeping.

Two factors may have helped. One is the shortened time span, and during a campaign season. Senators Ben Westlund and Jason Atkinson, both candidates for governor, seemed a little wound with energy, but both were active participants in the proceedings. The other is the absence of trading issues, which is what killed Jessica’s and other popular legislation during the regular.

Even so, these people showed they could get the job done – that the system isn’t hopelessly broken. Westlund, basing his campaign around the idea that the two parties are too dysfunctional to get work done anymore, may have been undercut significantly by the short session’s success. Others, including politicians as far-ranging as Kulongoski and Atkinson, may have been helped, in various ways.

To the extent a legislative success is remembered as much as legislative failure.

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