The 2015 Oregon House will be a substantially different from the one that convened just a year ago. Nearly a quarter of House members who were sworn in during the 2013 session have announced their intention not to seek re-election or are pursuing other electoral opportunities (some in the Oregon Senate).
In a state where relationships are key to legislative victories, the turnover in the House may break Oregon’s recent streak in passing major reforms.
The 14 House members not seeking re-election include nine Republicans and five Democrats. Together, they have served a whopping 117 years as elected members of the Oregon House through 103 regular sessions (and, for some, countless special sessions).
Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton), the longest serving member of the Oregon House, is among those who will retire this year after serving 18 years as a state representative.
Legislative service is a tough business — long hours, low pay, months away from families and friends, all combined with an election cycle that is increasingly hostile. Yet, the service for many is rewarding, finding ways to pass legislation that is important to their districts, working collaboratively balance budgets and make important reforms.
Satisfaction comes from the goodwill built up from spending hours on the House floor together. Learning about arcane sections of the law in committees, chatting over lunch in the House lounge and sharing the highs and lows of their personal lives creates the opportunity for bipartisan collaboration. The more legislators spend time together, the less they see each other as partisans and the more they understand each other as human beings with families and similar goals.
Close relationships, built not only with each other but also with executive branch officials, have enabled major reforms to move through the legislature
In 2011, Rep. Tim Freeman (R-Roseburg) was a key player in moving health care transformation through the House based on his working relationship with now Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland).
Last session, Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego) worked closely with members of both parties to pass significant public safety reforms. Rep. Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg) successfully navigated the 2011-2012 divided House as co-speaker with now Senator Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay), in large part because of their warm personal relationship that grew through service together.
The relationships of all of the retiring members contributed, in no small part, to the success of legislation in the last few years.
New legislators will bring a different perspectives on public policy — and that’s not to be undervalued. Still, relationships are built with time. Passing politically sensitive legislation is harder when members don’t understand the motivations and quirks of other legislators. The threshold for passing tax reform, already high, continues to rise as more members announce retirements.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition for Oregon politics — if successful in their own campaigns, the longest serving Oregon governor and Senate president will find themselves working with a House with one of the biggest freshmen classes in recent history.