Let’s Not Clone Betsy Johnson

Should our federal laws use the word “lunatic?” Congress decided last December that we probably should not use that word, and in an effort to reduce the stigmatization of the mentally ill, Congress voted to remove the word “lunatic” from all federal laws. Well…when I say Congress, I mean every voting member of Congress except for Louie Gohmert (R-TX)—often recognized as the dumbest member of Congress. Mr. Gohmert was the lone member of Congress who thought we should continue to use the word. Not to be outdone, in 2004, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), was the only person in the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against a resolution to honor the 40th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. To be fair to Rep. Gohmert, he did not join Congress until 2005 so never had the opportunity to vote against an honoring of the Civil Rights Act.

To most people, the votes by Congressman Gohmert and Paul are shameful, embarrassing, and inexplicable. To many in the media, however, who are obsessed with the phenomenon of voting against one’s own party, these loons are to be lauded and cheered for their courage and independence.

For those of us in Oregon, we deal with this obsession with annoying regularity because we have only one statewide paper—The Oregonian—and it adores “bipartisanship” and “breaking with party lines.” Whether those breaks represent a vote for good public policy is a far secondary consideration.

The Oregonian recently showcased its bizarre fetish for bipartisanship with its editorial entitled, “Oregon Needs More Betsy Johnsons.” For those of you not familiar with Betsy Johnson, she represents Oregon’s northwest coast in the state senate (Astoria, Seaside, Tillamook). Most people who encounter Ms. Johnson would not likely be blown away by her. She is not a fiery public speaker. Few would describe her as overly charismatic. She isn’t what you would call a policy wonk. At 62 years of age, she isn’t exactly an up-and-comer. I have spoken to lobbyists who, off the record, will tell me she is not intellectually curious, and her votes seem to vary more based on her mood that day rather than the specific policy before her. And in her more than 10 years in the Oregon legislature, I can recall no piece of legislation she has ever spearheaded. My efforts to educate myself on Ms. Johnson’s accomplishments were met with a series of dead ends. Even Ms. Johnson’s legislative website and campaign website are devoid of even one mention of a legislative accomplishment attained in her 13 years in the Oregon legislature.

Some readers at this time may be asking, “Why then does The Oregonian think we need more Betsy Johnsons?” The reason The Oregonian likes Ms. Johnson so is that she has a knack for poking her fellow Democrats in the eye. This was most evident this past legislative session when Secretary of State Kate Brown proposed a law that would automatically register to vote any person who obtained a drivers’ license. No person would be required to vote, but each driver would be automatically registered to vote should they choose to vote at some later time. This seemed like a law that had something appealing for all political stripes. Liberals could tout easier access to voting, and conservatives could crow about streamlining of government and elimination of bureaucratic waste.

The bill passed the Oregon House, but died in the senate 15-15. Democrats held a 16-14 edge in the Senate, but Ms. Johnson joined the 14 Republicans to kill the bill. The reason for Ms. Johnson’s opposition was difficult to discern. The only explanation obtained from her was via a flippant statement she made that we “ask so little of citizenship.” Apparently state governments need to find ways to make it harder to be a citizen…or something.

We should have a full and vocal debate on the merits of this bill (or lack thereof). There may be reasons why it is important to require people to register to vote instead of doing it automatically. My understanding is that technology has rendered the original reasons for requiring a separate voter-registration process obsolete, but perhaps there are good reasons to keep this antiquated process in place. Making people earn their citizenship, however, is not a good reason. Howard Dean was so upset by Ms. Johnson’s antics that he went to Twitter to encourage Democrats in Oregon to primary her.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this is that The Oregonian stated in its puff-piece praising Ms. Johnson, that it actually supported the bill that Ms. Johnson killed! The Oregonian was apparently willing to overlook the fact that she killed good policy because good policy is not as important to The Oregonian as getting to watch a politician poke its own party in the eye. Talk about form over substance.

Besty Pic Not the Cure to What Ails Us

Ms. Johnson has strayed from her party when it needed her vote to pass stronger environmental regulation. She was also the lone Democrat back in 2012 who joined Republicans in amending an otherwise very positive bill designed to streamline Oregon’s Medicare Program so that the bill would include a dreadful tort reform provision.

Politicians who are willing to buck their party’s leadership can be a very good thing, but I say that with two very important caveats that The Oregonian (and many others) fail to apply. First, and most important, bucking your party’s leadership is not admirable if it means opposing good legislation (e.g., see Louie Gohmert and Ron Paul’s votes above). Second, bucking your party’s leadership is not always motivated by a desire to do the right thing. For example, in 2009, Joe Lieberman opposed the public option for reasons even he must have known were silly, and then opposed the optional Medicare buy-in even though it was his own idea. Sometimes people buck their party because they are bought and sold by a particular interest group, or they have an axe to grind, or they are just an attention-seeking narcissist (by the way, I think all three apply to Lieberman). In these instances, bucking one’s party leadership warrants nothing but scorn.

Betsy Johnson may be a great person (I have never met her). But the record indicates she is, to be kind, a fairly mediocre legislator. To think that we need more representatives like her for the sole reason that she is willing to vote against her party a whopping 10% of the time (heavy on the snark) regardless of all other considerations is indefensible. Let’s instead choose people who are intelligent, hard-working, support good policy, and can point to a few legislative accomplishments. If these legislators’ vigilant attempts accidentally lead them to engage in a bipartisan manner, such bipartisanship may deserve an interesting side note, but nothing more.



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