If You're Not Upset With Partisan Politics, You're Not Paying Attention
It’s remarkable and infuriating that Oregon’s next governor could potentially come from a candidate who won their party primary with less than 13% of the registered voters in the state.
The recent step by Senate President Peter Courtney to strip one of Oregon’s most experienced legislators of her position as a chair of the most important and influential committee in the state illustrates the fact that partisanship is the enemy of good policy. There’s no justification for stripping Betsy Johnson, a budget expert, of her Ways and Means role other than purely partisan shenanigans.
While explaining the removal of Senator Johnson from her position, President Courtney observed, “[T]he decision to remove Johnson’s gavel was a logical result of her decision to change her party affiliation,” according to the Willamette Week. Johnson indeed announced her intention to run for Oregon’s Governor as a Non-Affiliated candidate, a decision which is very unpopular with both of the dominant parties.
For Courtney, party loyalty is more important than experience or expertise when it comes to managing the state’s money or representing the people. This short-sighted decision serves as yet another example of how partisan priorities sway the Legislature’s decision-making, regardless of which of the two major parties holds the majority.
Sadly, this is not just an Oregon issue. The passage of the federal Infrastructure Bill is a good example of how the “caucus loyalty” phenomenon is the biggest enemy to getting good policy work done. While the true infrastructure Bill was overwhelmingly supported by the citizens who would be affected, the unwillingness of the Democratic caucus in Congress to move the bill without a companion “Social Infrastructure” bill held up the work for many weeks.
It took significant crossing of party lines to get the Infrastructure Bill passed, with the ramifications for some members in both parties yet to be seen. Seldom do we find an issue that is as clear as this was to allow a politician to buck their party and risk the election implications that accompany such a crossover.
Even more depressingly, we’ve known about this issue since the inception of the nation. In his Farewell Address, George Washington observed, “This spirit [of Party], unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.”
While it is true that parties will inevitably form, it is not inevitable that they will be allowed to acquire such power as to self-perpetuate and eliminate all competition. And yet, as shown by the example above, we have done just that in Oregon. As a result, we miss out on realizing the full potential of politicians such as Betsy Johnson and the corresponding better policy that would result if partisanship didn’t block independent officials.
One way to start chipping away at partisan control is to stop funding it. In the 2021 legislative session, SB 5016 provided funding of $20.5 million for the Senate President’s Office, Speaker’s Office, Majority and Minority Caucuses for both House and Senate, and the Office of the Chief Clerk and the Office of the Secretary of the Senate. While the office of the Chief Clerk and the Office of the Secretary of the Senate can be argued to be non-partisan and administrative only, the same cannot be said for the other offices. The staff of the caucuses and the leadership offices exist to ensure that the party’s agenda is carried out.
If those partisans want to argue that the money is being used to provide good research for their members, we need to ask what the Legislative Policy Research Office (LPRO), created in 2016 and charged with providing research and administrative assistance to all committees of the legislature, is up to. By the way, LPRO’s budget is about $15.3m. Oh, and by the way, testimony on SB 5016 shows that the request of the two independent senators in Oregon for their own caucus to be funded was not granted.
What is most ironic about all of this is the fact that the two major parties are controlling and warping our legislative processes while representing small slices of Oregon’s voting citizens. Consider the following statistics from the report of the Oregon Secretary of State on voter registrations through September of this year: D – 34.8%; R – 24.8%; Non-Affiliated (NAV) – 33.6%; I – 4.7%; Other 2.1%.
Together NAVs and Independent Party voters, which should be regarded as a block due to confusion surrounding the latter, constitute 38.3%, over 4% more than the Democrats. Furthermore, If we consider all who don’t register with one of the two major parties, we are looking at 40.4% of Oregon’s voters. It’s remarkable and infuriating that Oregon’s next governor could potentially come from a candidate who won their party primary with less than 17 or even 13% of the registered voters in the state having supported them.
Rob Harris recently observed that one of the problems that we are experiencing in addressing the need to make our elections fair and provide true access to all Oregonians is the fact that we can’t seem to agree upon how to make the changes. I say it’s time for the Legislature to stop putting party loyalty before good policy, and help Oregon to become the leader that it should be in righting this ship before it runs aground. And, there must be more than one effort at reform. We need to address finance, primary voting, caucus system, caucus funding, how our legislative leadership is chosen, and numerous other problems and inefficiencies.
A few additional quotes from Washington before my final thought:
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.
Let me now warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party. The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another. In governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged.
[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.
The alternate triumphs of different parties ... make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels.
It is time for us to avoid the constant attention to the “incongruous projects of faction,” and return to a place where our “common counsels” can work on “wholesome plans” that benefit all Oregonians.
Rich Vial is a former Oregon State Legislator, former Deputy Secretary of State and founder of the law firm Vial-Fotheringham, LLC. He provided legal assistance to hundreds of Homeowner Associations throughout the West for four decades and has always had a passion for how communities organize and govern effectively.