Baseball season is over in Eugene, so let’s talk about the shut out that shouldn’t have happened in Salem. It wasn’t thrown by any of the young pitchers for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, but by a 74-year-old man who has been playing Salem’s first sport since 1974.
Peter Courtney has been president of the Oregon State Senate since 2003. He’s held that leadership position longer than any other Oregonian. Before moving to the state Senate, Courtney served in the House. He was the Democratic leader there for eight years, longer than anyone else before him. Only a strong arm can pitch so many complete games in politics.
He finished this year’s session with a perfect game. The final score on July 7, 2017 was 908-0. Exactly 908 bills were brought to a vote in the Oregon State Senate and all 908 of them passed.
If you’re an Oregon politician, those are impressive numbers. If you’re an Oregon citizen, they represent a sad and dangerous trend.
Anyone who lives in the real world knows that nothing is ever 908 percent pure — least of all when it involves 30 strong-minded individuals, representing disparate populations across Oregon’s varied political landscape.
Of course, passing every bill doesn’t require all 30 Senators to agree. Most require only a simple majority of 16 votes to pass. Running up the score isn’t difficult when you have more than 16 Democratic senators and the Senate President decides which bills will be voted on at all.
It’s understood that the leader of the Senate should protect his members from embarrassing votes. He does that by controlling which bills are brought to the floor. Courtney enforced what came to be known among his colleagues as “the Rule of 16.” If you didn’t already have 16 votes to pass your bill, it would not get a floor vote.
The Rule of 16 creates at least five problems for the Oregon citizens.
First, only bills that will pass get past committee, regardless of the force of their moral argument. This favors bills that follow public opinion, and penalizes those that lead it. A losing vote can also become a moral victory. It can set the terms of the dialogue that follows. Gay rights lost until lawmakers learned that “marriage equality” made more sense to people. Same when “assisted suicide” became “death with dignity.”
Second, persuasion is given no public role. The state capitol should be a storehouse of the state’s best thinkers and most courageous leaders, but those strengths are purposely hidden from the public view. We are denied any real public debate between our leaders, so we never learn how or why the majority’s view came to be. Persuading continues between colleagues behind closed doors, but public eye has nothing to behold until the deal is done.
Third, dissent has no consequence. The way legislation is supposed to work, lawmakers vote for or against each bill that is being considered. They do so, knowing that voters will hold them accountable for those votes. Only public votes on the legislative floor keep the ultimate power in the hands of voters.
Fourth, polarization deepens. When there is no public debate and every persuasion is kept private, the only outward face on most issues comes from each parties’ leadership. Rank-and-file members are happy for the anonymity, while leaders make the broad-brush case for why their party supports or opposes any piece of legislation.
Fifth, Oregonians deserve and should demand the ongoing civics lesson that public legislating was intended to provide. It’s often said that people would rather not see how the sausage of legislation is made. I have no doubt that’s true. But I also know that the laws that are made are the sausage we’ll all be eating, so ignorance is hardly bliss.
Can things be done differently in Salem? Not unless each party’s leaders feel new pressures. That may have to come from the other legislators. If columnists and letter writers can raise enough havoc, voter awareness might change their political calculus. But remember: the team that supports the status quo just won 908-0.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.