Hoping to improve public confidence in the Legislature, Senate Democrats are banning the use of closed-door caucus meetings where lawmakers often plan their strategy on top issues...

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SALEM, Ore. — Hoping to improve public confidence in the Legislature, Senate Democrats are banning the use of closed-door caucus meetings where lawmakers often plan their strategy on top issues.

The Democrats, who won control of the Senate in the Nov. 2 election, say they will open all of their caucus meetings to news reporters — even meetings dealing with sensitive topics such as budget negotiations.

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It’s the first time the majority party in either the Senate or the House has decided to allow reporters into caucus meetings.

Senate President Peter Courtney hopes the open meetings will improve the Legislature’s reputation, which has been hurt by years of protracted, behind-the-scenes battles over budget gaps and ill-fated tax-increase plans.

“The more the public can see how we make decisions, the better it is for us,” the Salem Democrat said.

House Republicans and Democrats and the Senate Republicans say they will continue to close their caucus meetings to reporters when the Legislature convenes Jan. 10.

Many lawmakers say they need a private setting where they can ask questions, share information and build consensus without fear that their comments might end up in a news story.

“That’s what caucus meetings are for — to float trial balloons, bounce ideas off the wall and look for honest feedback,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.

When the Legislature is in session, lawmakers often break into groups along party lines and conduct separate caucus meetings, which often occur before regular floor sessions. Critics say caucuses are where the real decisions often are reached.

Around the country, legislative caucus meetings are open in about a dozen states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As a rule, caucuses in Washington’s Legislature are closed to reporters and the public.

In Oregon, the Senate Democrats — when they were not the majority — first established an open-caucus policy in 1999. But they began closing some sessions in May 2003 after an embarrassing incident in which they tried to hide from reporters by arranging a secret caucus, first at a Salem restaurant and then in the back yard of a senator’s Salem rental house.

Now, Courtney insists all caucus meetings will be open and that Senate leaders won’t “play games” by selectively opening some meetings but closing others.

There is a catch, though.

Under rules the Democrats are considering, reporters would be able to sit in on the caucus meetings but not allowed to directly quote a senator’s comments without the senator’s permission.

“We want to make sure that informal, off-the-cuff remarks don’t end up on the front page of a newspaper or in a headline,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland.