I remember the first time I sat in a government meeting, put my head in my hands, and thought, “what is the point of this?”
I was new to reporting, and didn’t want to sit until 9 p.m. on an empty stomach and listen to city councilors have the first of what would be many discussions about whether to implement a plastic bag ban in the city. To me the answer seemed obvious. All the councilors, even, seemed to already know how they wanted to vote. But still they talked, and weary audience members listened.
Surprisingly, I made it out of that meeting, and went on to report several others. But in a few years of covering various forms of local government, whether school boards, port and county commissions, or city council, I’ve noticed that pattern endures: discussion at the local government level can seem long, and delves into minutiae of issues that don’t seem relevant to the public.
I observed some of the same things at the state government level last week, when my Leadership Hermiston class took a trip to Salem. We were hosted by our State Representative, Greg Smith, and treated to an excellent tour of the statehouse by his legislative assistant, Phil Scheuers. The two-day class included visits with the governor, speaker of the house and house minority leader. We visited the state courthouse and met with several lobbyists that work with Eastern Oregon businesses such as dairy farms and power companies.
We also spent about an hour on the House floor, listening to opening ceremonies and a small amount of discussion. We left, though, during the reading of an individual bill, which lasted more than an hour. As Rep. Smith told us, the senate Republican leader was opposed to the bill, which dealt with end-of-life care, and asked for it to be read in its entirety, 30-plus pages of text. This pushed back several other bills scheduled to be read on the House floor that day. Ultimately, the bill ended up passing, right along party lines.
It took me back to the days of listening to three hours of discussion in which nobody changed their minds, but something Scheuers said after we left gave me pause.
“The reason democracy is meant to be a little cumbersome is that you want debate,” he said. “You don’t want quick government. Any time you run something through, you end up spending next session doing cleanup bills, because of unintended consequences.”
He’s right, of course, that the process does, and should take time. It’s easy to get annoyed when you end up writing what feels like the same story for months, as legislators debate and discuss minor changes that don’t seem to have any obvious impact.
But that discourse can mean the difference between good legislation and disastrous legislation. And the fact that we can be privy to those discussions is an under-utilized privilege.
What I’d like to see, both as a reporter and a citizen, is making sure that long debate is worth it. Are constituents going to be better or worse off as a result of your long-term consideration of an issue? I maintain those councilors could have made up their minds about those plastic bags in two months, rather than the six or seven it took. Something like the gun control bill that passed through the Oregon House last week warrants careful and serious discussion — but I would hope that, too, is important enough to decide in a relatively short time.
It’s incumbent on citizens, too, to familiarize themselves with the process. My understanding of state legislative procedures was fuzzy at best prior to this trip, but there’s no reason for it to be. If you have a representative like Smith, who makes himself readily available to his constituents, it’s your responsibility to take advantage of it. Visit the statehouse, listen in on a committee meeting, learn how local and state government work, and ask questions of your legislators. That’s why they’re there.
When lobbyist Craig Campbell came to speak to our class, he said: “If you don’t engage in discussion, you become a victim of it.”
As citizens of a government in which we’re all supposed to have a say, we would do well to remember that.
Jayati Ramakrishnan is a report for the Hermiston Herald and East Oregonian.