How to Rate a Legislature

It's human nature to rate things, including legislative sessions. But what should you rate and why is it important?The end of every legislative session brings on the desire to "rate" a legislature.  From media outlets to advocacy organizations, the end of session report card or evaluation tool for a legislature is largely based on the ability of a legislature to deliver on the priorities of the organization producing the report card than on the actual performance of the legislature.

Perhaps, it would be better to characterize the end-of-session rating as a reflection on the ability of the media or organization to influence the outcome of a session instead of a reflection on the legislature itself.  This, however, is much less satisfying to the clients who receive reports of work from exhausted lobbyists or editorial boards who would prefer to opine judge legislators on their ability to produce results without the responsibility to actually advocate for them.

Thus, measuring or grading legislative performance is a truly difficult task. As a starting tool, one should look to what the Oregon Constitution requires of legislatures. They must meet annually and approve a balanced budget. Very little else is required of the legislature in the Constitution. In fact, much of Article IV that governs the legislature is about what the legislature cannot do instead of what they should do. Our founding fathers (and mothers) knew that legislatures would find a way to legislate as much as they could, so better not to direct them, just limit them.

In the case of this legislature, Oregonians will be pleased to know that the legislature did meet and produce a balanced budget. For that matter, every legislature has met and — when required — produced a balanced budget.  Yet, it seems insufficient to leave this as the only measure of good governance — that is, the accomplishment of the bare minimum required by the Oregon constitution.  

Appointed by no one, except myself, I propose a new set of measurements that could be used to rate legislatures — ones that may work for or against the clients I represent on a day-to-day basis, but may serve Oregonians and public process better in the long term. Those measurements include:

1. What was the level of debate in the legislature?  Tough debates should produce better outcomes. Yet, sometimes these tough debates are characterized as disorganized leadership. The higher the level of rigorous, but respectful, debate in the legislature, the more likely the views of each Oregonian are represented in the discussion of a measure.

2. How available were documents, presentations, amendments? How early were scheduled meetings posted? Transparency is harder than it sounds in a legislative process. The more available documents and meeting agendas, the better prepared everyone is to provide valuable input on the business of the legislature.

3. How well did the leaders communicate with each other? Communication — not necessarily agreement — is essential to lead the legislature and state government. The more legislative leaders, of both parties, can communicate openly, the better the outcomes in a session.  Even if that communication results in temporary frustration.

4. How well did the leaders of every caucus tolerate independence in their members?  Better yet, did they encourage members to vote their conscience? It's hard to buck one's caucus — and harder still for presiding officers/caucus leaders to allow members to vote independently and still allow them to retain a leadership position. Yet, the independent streak is part of Oregon's heritage and part of what we all want from our legislators.

5. How did the system encourage members to work across party lines to address policy issues — big and small? Working across party lines drives collaboration and a better policy product, but the rules don't always encourage legislators to work together.  

These measurements, and others, may do a better job of defining whether the legislature actually worked for the people — and how they did that work — than whether the legislature passed (or failed to pass) the right bills.  And, really, how they work as an institution should matter more than what they accomplish.  Because if we only judge them by what they are required to do, or what we want them to do, we fail to judge them by what they really should be doing.