Hanging around the Oregon capitol building, waiting to testify at a legislative hearing, isn't my idea of fun. But the two hours I spent there this afternoon gave me some interesting insights into a political world that I observe rather rarely.
I arrived at Hearing Room C, where the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee was to meet at 3 pm, about twenty minutes early -- wanting to be one of the first to sign up to testify on House Bill 2871.
(It has to do with how Metro deals with urban growth boundary expansion in the Portland area. I won't explain it any further, not wanting to put any blog readers to sleep and risking a concussion when their heads hit the edge of their computer desk.)
After claiming an empty chair with my coat, I sat down on a bench on the edge of the bustling corridor outside of the hearing room to soak up the 2011 legislative mid-session vibes.
First impression: things seem more hectic than when I testified several months ago on another land use issue. Lobbyists were striding along and having semi-hushed conversations on their cell phones with increased intensity.
Second impression: some of those lobbyists (at least that's who I assumed they were) are damn good-looking women. For a while I focused on the shoes of females walking past, mentally calculating the proportion of flats, low heels, and high heels.
I'm not sure what this proves, but the hottest lobbyist babes were wearing the highest high heels. And they tended to be blonde.
Now, I can only imagine what it's like to be a state legislator, but I'm intimately familiar with what it's like to be a man. So I can surmise that if a gorgeous female lobbyist strutted up to Rep. or Sen. Me in high heels and a short skirt, I'd be inclined to give her a bit (or a lot) more of my time and attention than if a frumpy guy wanted to convince me to vote a certain way.
After indulging in these sociological speculations for a while, I noticed that audience members were settling down in the hearing room.
Returning to my seat I exchanged pleasantries with a woman in the adjoining chair who was simultaneously clutching her smart phone and a white binder with a list of legislator's names/ phone numbers/ committee assignments taped to the front. Her appearance screamed lobbyist.
Before and during the hearing she gave me some further insights into the mood of this legislative session.
When I said, "The legislators seem to be acting sort of giddy," she replied that Wednesday was the deadline for moving bills out of committee, or they die. This explained why Rep. Brian Clem, who was chairing the committee, had such a full plate of legislation on that day's agenda.
The hearing had a night-before-term-paper-is-due urgent feel to it. Clem and other committee members lightened the mood with frequent injections of humor, some of which was of a political gallows nature.
("I assume you don't want to testify on this bill," Rep. Clem said to someone in the audience, "since we're about to kill it no matter what you say.")
Every time I see legislators in action, I'm impressed with how hard they work for the pitifully small salary they earn -- about $1,800 a month, I think. My lobbyist seatmate agreed when I said state legislators should be paid a lot more, so their public service isn't such an economic sacrifice.
I asked her where out-of-town legislators lived during the session.
She said that the "girls" and "boys" room together, in rented apartments and houses, I gather, because most can't afford to rent a place of their own. She pointed out which legislators on the committee are able to go home at night, and which have to spend most of the session away from their families.
The hearing went pretty smoothly, and I even got to present my testimony in person just before I planned to leave for my Tai Chi class (got to keep my own priorities straight). I sat at the witness table with some guys from the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Nursery Association.
Since I was there to represent Friends of Marion County, an affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon, it wasn't surprising that each of us sang the same testimony tune, urging the committee to pass HB 2871 and help protect farmland near an urban growth boundary.
Before that bill came up, a Sierra Club lobbyist testified on a different bill that had something to do with burning biomass to generate energy. Rep. Clem had said that the bill likely wasn't going anywhere, but the guy said he'd testify anyway. The woman next to me whispered, "That's a mistake. Legislators will see this as wasting their time at a busy hearing where they have a lot to do."
Seems like she was right.
After he finished reading some fairly lengthy testimony, Rep. Schaufler (who isn't shy about speaking his mind and resents environmental regulations) sarcastically said to him, "Why doesn't the Sierra Club just come out and admit it wants to ban all logging in Oregon? Then we could be done with this bit by bit lobbying stuff."
To his credit, the Sierra Club lobbyist held his ground and responded pretty cogently. He said that the Sierra Club supports environmentally sound thinning in state forests, but so far the legislature hasn't been willing to pursue a balanced approach to this sort of logging.
Schaufler wanted to continue on with their back and forth, but Rep. Clem put it to a stop, saying they needed to move on with the rest of the committee agenda.
It was engaging political theatre.
Last night I enjoyed watching HBO's "Game of Thrones" more than I liked sitting through this committee hearing, but there were quite a few commonalities: palace intrigue, back stabbing, incestuous relationships. I can understand how political junkies can become addicted to this stuff.
For me, though, I was happy to head to my Tai Chi class.