Having decompressed from what was a long and exhausting legislative session, I thought I’d share a little bit of what I wrote in my final report to Sea Grant. It gives a (relatively) brief overview of what was a long and, at times, stressful six months of my life.
I will break it up into chunks, so as not to bore you with a block of text. Without further ado, what follows is a brief introduction to the Oregon Legislature:
Never in a million years did I imagine I would ever be working in politics. Yet when I applied for the Oregon Sea Grant Legislative Fellowship, I had no idea how deeply immersed I would become in Oregon politics generally, and coastal Oregon politics specifically. It certainly has been an experience I will carry with me, and put lessons learned to use, for the rest of my life. What follows is my report on the 2011 legislative session through the eyes of the Oregon Sea Grant Legislative Fellow.
To begin, it is worth mentioning the unique political climate that existed in Salem during the 2011 session. While the Senate was narrowly controlled by Democrats (by a 16-14 majority) he House of Representatives was split evenly (30-30) between Republicans and Democrats, something that had never happened before. Much of January was spent determining how business of the House would be conducted. Every House committee would have a Republican and Democrat co-chair, who would each need to agree to hear a bill in committee. There would be a Republican and Democrat co-Speaker of the House, who would alternate days presiding over floor sessions.
Needless to say, in order for a bill to pass the House, it had to have bipartisan support. While theoretically this created an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together to solve Oregon’s problems, in practice it made it all too easy for one party, or even one member, to kill a bill that they didn’t want to see passed.
The Coastal Caucus
Operating as usual in this unique environment was the Oregon Coastal Caucus, which the Oregon Sea Grant Legislative Fellow is assigned to support. A bipartisan and bicameral group of legislators, the Coastal Caucus is unique in Oregon politics. It consists of the Senators and Representatives from coastal districts, as well as the Senator from the Klamath basin (due to the region’s dependence on salmon and other oceangoing fish). The members are, for the most part, long-serving; all are in at least their third term. For the 2011 legislative session, the Coastal Caucus consisted of: Rep Cowan (chair), Rep Krieger, Rep Boone, Rep Witt, Rep Roblan, Sen Verger, Sen Johnson, Sen Kruse and Sen Whitsett.
The group meets weekly during session, for an hour in the morning, to discuss issues of concern. The Coastal Caucus operates on a consensus-only basis: if they have consensus on an issue, they weigh in on it. If even one member disagrees with the group, no action is taken. There is a sense among members that the coast is often overlooked in Oregon politics, and they feel strongly that it is their duty to protect their constituents. While there are both Republicans and Democrats representing coastal Oregon, party lines are often blurred, and issues stretch across individual districts.
Because of the composition of the group, they are able to have tremendous influence on issues that they choose to weigh in on. In an evenly divided House of Representatives, that influence should have been even stronger.