State Legislators School Washington in How to Govern
With the news of Speaker Boehner’s resignation and yet another barely-averted government shutdown, it’s like watching government as an extreme sport. As the Wednesday deadline to pass a budget came closer, we were once again watching to see if Congress would take action to move our country forward, or if a few extremists in Congress would succeed in blocking the budget and shutting down the government over an ideological fight about how women should receive health care services.
As two outsiders to Washington, we thought we could offer some advice to Congress on how to get things done. We are legislators from Portland, Oregon and Jamestown, North Dakota, and let’s just say, we govern very differently out in the states. In both of our communities, we see firsthand working families who continue to struggle to make ends meet. We know that the politicians in Washington see the same families with the same struggles. Yet, while we have made these families our priority and are delivering for them, Washington has failed.
For example, this year in Oregon, we had a historic legislative session where we addressed some of our residents’ most pressing economic needs. We passed free community college for qualifying students in order to give young people more opportunities to get ahead. We passed a program for workers to be able to earn sick leave so they don’t have to go without pay when they or a child falls ill. These are the kinds of policies that can keep a family afloat during a vulnerable time.
And even while some in Congress continue looking for ways to restrict voting rights for certain communities, in Oregon we greatly expanded access with our New Motor Voter law, which automatically registers all eligible voters so we can deliver them a ballot.
In North Dakota, workers talked to us about how environments today have not kept up with the changing needs of their families, which created an enormous economic burden. So, this year we passed a bill to protect pregnant women in the workplace, ensuring they won’t lose their job in order to start a family. The session before we took action to lower student loan debt to help ease the financial burden to young people by directing the state bank to allow North Dakota residents with student loan debt to refinance at a variable low rate of 1.79 percent. This has helped recent graduates tremendously, myself included, to pay off student loans earlier because of the incredibly low rate.
We’re excited to share our successes and hear similar stories from the hundreds of our colleagues across the country this week at the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) legislator conference. We don’t have the staff and research support that members of Congress count on, so many of our best policy ideas and strategy come as we support one another and learn what has worked best in other states. Unfortunately, with the dysfunction in Washington at a critical point, that support is more necessary than ever.
We hope that as we gather in Washington this week to discuss legislative victories and map out new policy proposals for next year, federal legislators here will take note. We urge them to recognize that when you work together and remember who we’re working for, we can actually get things done to better the lives of our constituents.
Rep. Jennifer Williamson is the Majority Leader in the Oregon House of Representatives and Rep. Jessica Haak is a state representative from North Dakota.