Oregon Democrats learn limits of control after GOP walkout
Salem, Ore. – When Democrats won a supermajority in the Oregon Legislature last November, it seemed they had a clear path ahead to combat global warming, enact gun control and pursue other liberal goals.
Instead, it’s been a bumpy road.
Eight months after Democrats toasted their victories, they have learned the limits of power during the Oregon Legislature’s most acrimonious session in memory: Republican lawmakers boycotted the Senate – twice – even fleeing the state after Democratic Gov. Kate Brown ordered police after them.
Several major Democratic initiatives bit the dust, including a sweeping measure to curb climate-changing emissions that prompted a nine-day Republican walkout and threats of violence that closed down the Capitol.
Now, Brown says she may resort to using her executive powers to push through limits on greenhouse gas emissions and warns that the so-called quorum rules may need to be changed to prevent a repeat of the turmoil.
Only three other states have rules requiring two-thirds of lawmakers be present to vote on legislation, and those in the minority party have used them – though rarely – to combat proposals they want to defeat.
Politicians and observers are worried that the hardening of positions and use of extreme tactics in the legislative process may defray democratic values.
“The distressing thing, the disappointing thing about the walkout is it brought the legislative branch to a halt,” Brown told reporters this week. “For me, it’s a subversion of the democratic process, and a halt to the legislative branch.”
Republicans painted their boycott as a triumph for rural residents who faced higher fuel prices and financial havoc in the trucking and the logging industries from what would have been the nation’s second statewide program, after California, to cap greenhouse gas emissions. It would have required companies to buy or trade pollution credits.
“Our mission in walking out was to kill cap and trade, and that’s what we did,” Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said Friday, a day before Republicans went back to the statehouse.
The Republicans used a tool made available by the Oregon Constitution, stipulating that two-thirds of the Senate and House must be present to convene. Tennessee, Indiana and Texas have the same requirement. Other states need only a majority of lawmakers to get work done.
Although Oregon Democrats hold 18 Senate seats – enabling them to impose taxes without Republican support – 20 senators need to be present to pass legislation.
Republican senators walked out first in May to block a school funding tax. They returned only after Democrats scrapped bills on gun control and vaccines.
They did it again the next month to stop the climate bill, with the Capitol closed June 22 over a possible militia threat from right-wing groups that rallied around Republicans. It never materialized.
Democrats declared the bill dead and urged Republicans to come back to finish key work. They returned a day before the session ended.
Baertschiger told reporters that he was the last Republican to agree to the boycott.
“My fear is that it could be abused very easily, that every time you don’t get your way, you just walk out,” Baertschiger said. “I think that would be abuse of that.”
The governor says she fears it will happen again. Minority lawmakers in the other three states with two-thirds quorum requirements also have weaponized the rules:
– In May, minority Democrats in the Tennessee House walked out over a Medicaid bill, saying they had been excluded from negotiations. After GOP leadership allegedly tried to lock the Democrats in the chamber, a Democratic leader accused the Republican House speaker of wielding power “like some sort of dictator from a Third World country.” The Republican accused Democrats of shirking their constitutional responsibilities.
– In 2011, Indiana House Democrats staged a five-week walkout to block Republican action on public education and labor unions.
– In 2003, Texas Democrats had two dramatic walkouts over redistricting, first in the House, then the Senate, only to return and see the bills they opposed pass anyway.
Christopher Shortell, associate professor of political science at Portland State University, is worried about the heightened tensions and use of tactics like boycotts.
“We’re getting into a spiral where you have a breakdown of democratic norms,” he said.
He suggested Oregon’s politicians reflect before they gather again 2020.
“Thinking about the long term and stepping back from the cliff is really important for everyone – thinking about the consequences for the long-term legitimacy of democratic governance,” he said.