The Legislative Process – A view from the Inside

Every two years or so, we hear how “special interests” are running Salem (or Washington D.C.) and neglecting the “common people”, and we need to vote for or against someone in an effort to change that (again!).  Strange how I have heard this same lament for my entire adult life, we continue to vote for the candidate who promises to work “for Oregonians” and against “special interests”, yet every two years we need to go do it again.  Strange how this never changes.

Why is that?  For me, it is quite simple; money.  I have been fortunate (is this the right word?) to serve on my trade association’s legislative committee since 1997, and have been the Chair for about 10 years.  In these many years, I have had the opportunity to see up-close how the Legislature works and moves bills into laws.  And if you are holding on to the Schoolhouse Rock version of how a “Bill Becomes a Law”, I am sorry to break this to you but that isn’t how the game is played.  It also has almost nothing to do with “standing against special interests” and “helping the common person”.  It has to do with money and power, who has it, who is going to get it, and who is going to take it away from whom.

Let me start with the fallacy of those horrible, mean, rotten “special interests”.   Sorry to tell you all this, but YOU are the special interests!  That’s right, the Common Person IS the special interest you have come to despise.  What do I mean?  You belong to a group of some kind, likely many, and each of those groups has representation in Salem (called Lobbyists) and they try to do their best to get you your way on all legislation.  They work to introduce bills, change bills, stop bills and pass bills.  Teachers, environmentalists, small business owners, lawyers, counties, sheriffs, fishermen, Native Americans, unions, loggers, retail merchants, doctors, bankers, retired persons, children, homeless, the poor, and dozens of other groups all have lobbyists.  If you work for or are one of those groups, YOU are a Special Interest.  You either give money to them willingly, or they take it from you in the form of union dues or taxes (yep – your tax dollars are used to lobby those who write the tax laws) and the lobbyist will try to do your bidding with the elected officials.

What can be very frustrating for those people who want to and try to work toward the good of the whole, is few of these Special Interests care a wit about the others when they are working on behalf of their clients (that’s US again).  And very few people are watching the process from the inside, so little is understood about the trading and negotiating that really takes place in Salem to get anything accomplished.  It all comes back in the campaign season as the “other party is the problem and we need to get rid of them so we can work for you, the Common Person.”  Even when that is far from true, as is the case again this session.

In my small corner of the legislative world, groups of people calling themselves Consumer Advocates routinely petition the Legislature for changes to credit and collection laws, claiming the Common Person is being harmed.  Instead of offering something that would benefit all consumers, especially those who play by the rules, pay their bills and try to benefit society in their lives, they want to benefit people who don’t pay their bills , but mostly they want to benefit lawyers.  It is frustrating to witness a few groups of Special Interests consumed with helping only themselves, making their opposition out to be evil, and putting forth bills that benefit people who don’t produce anything and punish those who work to follow the rules.

And this is how every battle goes; someone has money and someone else wants to get it.  I don’t mean to sound cynical, but there is little I have experienced in the last 18 years working with lobbyists and legislators and lawyers that makes me think anything else.  I have come to the conclusion that our Republic’s demise, whenever that will come, can be blamed on two words: Billable Hours.  There is almost no evidence of give-and-take, sacrifice, or working for the common good the last several sessions in Salem.  It is about one group trying to take as much of the ground (and money) as they can, give it to their friends or themselves in some form, and then coming back for more while blaming someone else for the demise of it all.

As a side thought, I wonder how long Harry & David will be able to keep their call center open in Medford if the minimum wage goes up as promised?  If the Oregon minimum wage goes to $15 an hour as many “common people” advocates demand, one of the largest employers in Jackson County has several places it can consolidate those operations where the cost is not nearly as high.  Mandatory paid sick leave may already push toward the tipping point for H&D.  How many other Oregon employers will need to close since they will not be able to compete with Florida, Iowa, or India for call center costs?  How are these policies good for all us Common People, when we won’t be able to find a job?

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