The Legislative Trail from Salem to Olympia

Passing bills in the Oregon and Washington legislatures is similar, but markedly different in key ways, such as a power Rules Committee and permitting floor amendments in Washington. But Oregon knows how to adjourn on time; Washington not so much.

Passing bills in the Oregon and Washington legislatures is similar, but markedly different in key ways, such as a power Rules Committee and permitting floor amendments in Washington. But Oregon knows how to adjourn on time; Washington not so much.

Early adjournment of Oregon's short 2016 legislative session provided an opportunity to hop on a train and see the waning days of the Washington Legislature in Olympia. I was looking for similarities and differences, and I found plenty of both. 

Generally, Oregon's and Washington’s legislatures are similar. They are both “citizen” legislatures. They meet annually, with longer sessions in odd-numbered years and shorter ones in even-numbered years. They also tend to wait until the last minute to pass major bills, after extended periods of political jockeying and horse-trading.

Now, here are are some key differences I noticed. 

Washington's Rules Committee wields real power: All Washington policy bills must go to through the Rules Committee before reaching the floor. This gives the Rules Committee significant authority, ultimately deciding, on almost all of the bills, whether they die or go to the floor for a vote. Oregon also has a politically driven Rules Committee, but leadership only sends select bills there for review – or to wait until a political compromise is worked out behind closed doors. 

Washington’s Senate operates more like Congress: Washington has a lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate but only can vote in case of a tie, much like the vice president. Washington’s lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor and serves with no term limit. Oregon doesn’t have a lieutenant governor. The independently elected secretary of state is next in line, as we saw last year when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned and Secretary of State Kate Brown replaced him. Oregon’s Senate selects its own presiding officer from its membership, who votes on all bills just like his or her colleagues.

Floor amendments are permitted in Washington, but not in Oregon: Washington lawmakers can and often do offer floor amendments. On the day I visited, a public school bill that had been jerked to the House floor without going through the Rules Committee faced a floor debate over 27 separate amendments. After a lengthy debate, eight amendments passed, including one that replaced the entire original bill. Oregon lawmakers can petition to have a bill pulled out of committee, but it rarely happens. Once a bill reaches the Oregon House or Senate floor, it is not subject to amendment. Lawmakers can defeat a bill, vote to send it back to committee or vote for or against a minority report, if one is approved in committee. Most of the time floor votes on “amendments” are stalling tactics in Oregon. Overall, the committees have more sway in the Oregon legislative system. 

Oregon gets out on time, Washington does not: In six of the last seven years, Washington has developed a habit of missing constitutionally established deadlines on the budget, forcing one or more special sessions each time. Again this session, the Washington Legislature fell short of reaching a budget agreement by Thursday at midnight and went into a special session almost immediately. Governor Jay Inslee vetoed 27 bills as punishment for not reaching a budget deal in time. The intention behind his actions is to stop the cycle of consistently late budgets.

In Oregon, experienced legislative leaders have been able to adjourn early, including in the shorter even-year sessions during which Oregon has 35 days compared to Washington’s 60 days to hammer out bills and adjust the budget. Washington, unlike Oregon, has tried to skate around a state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature inadequately funds public schools, which puts knots in the budget process.

Seeing the differences between legislating in Salem and Olympia firsthand was insightful. It was a reminder that the intricacies of how a bill becomes a law can vary from state to state and from bill to bill, but it’s never quite as simple as the Schoolhouse Rock interpretation of how a bill becomes a law.