In an opinion column in the Feb. 27, 2020 Lake Oswego Review, State Senator Rob Wagner (D-Dist 19) said the walkouts of Republicans in the House and Senate to block Democrats’ climate change legislation “…are an attack on democracy itself.”
“Serving as state senator is a job I take seriously,” Wagner wrote. “I view it as a great honor and a great responsibility. Walking out on the job is irresponsible. Shutting down democracy is irresponsible. Accepting a paycheck while refusing to work is not only irresponsible, it’s unethical and it’s disrespectful.”
Sounds all very noble, a sincere effort to position himself as an honorable servant of the people, an exemplar of moral superiority. The reality is quite different. Legislative history reveals that Wagner is more a political opportunist and a hypocrite.
The fact is legislative walkouts (even jump-outs) by Democrats and Republicans have a long history in Oregon and other states, going back at least to 1840. In December of that year, Abraham Lincoln, then a state representative in Illinois, jumped out of a first-floor window of a church a serving as temporary legislative chambers to avoid a quorum call on a Democratic banking bill that he and fellow Whigs fiercely opposed
In Oregon, House Democrats walked out for five days in 2001 over redrawing state legislative districts. Senate Democratic Leader (now governor) Kate Brown, D-Portland, called the House Democrats’ actions “very appropriate under the circumstances.” Democratic Representatives Mark Hass (current State Senator) and Laurie Monnes Anderson (current State Senator) supported the walkout.
In April 1995, ten Senate Democrats walked out over an award named after the late Sen. Frank Roberts, a Democrat.
In 1971, House and Senate Democrats walked out over voting age and other issues.
The current controversy goes back to voter approval of Ballot Measure 71 in the Nov. 2010 general election. Until that point, the Oregon Legislature was restricted to meeting in regular session only during odd-numbered years.
Measure 71 amended the state’s constitution to add an even-year regular session and placed limits on the length of sessions in both even and odd years. Odd-year sessions were limited to 160 calendar days, even-year sessions to 35 calendar days.
Proponents of Measure 71 argued that the state was too complex for the legislature to make budget decisions on a two-year basis and some critical policy decisions either couldn’t or shouldn’t be held off for extended periods.
The common assumption was that the short sessions would provide a venue for urgent actions and facilitate a smoother running government while still keeping the longer sessions for consideration of consequential laws of wide public interest.
The 2020 short session is, however, hardly limiting itself to a few urgent bills. According to LegiScan, the session has 283 bills before it. In addition to the controversial cap-and-trade bill (Senate Bill 1530), bills have been introduced with widely varying degrees of apparent urgency. These include bills that would:
- Prohibit anybody from conducting or participating in a contest, competition, tournament or derby that has the objective of taking coyotes for cash or prizes.
- Regulate kratom, a tropical tree with leaves that contain compounds that can have psychotropic (mind-altering) effects.
- Require secure storage of guns and give local governments the authority to decide if guns should be allowed on their grounds.
- Direct Oregon Health Authority to assess supply and demand of behavioral health professionals in state.
- Describe evidence that Health Licensing Office may consider to determine if applicant for residential care facility administrator license has earned high school diploma or equivalent.
- Recognize 2019 Oregon Women of Achievement for outstanding leadership and service to people of Oregon.
- Makes unlawful practice for place of public accommodation to refuse to accept United States coins or currency as payment for goods and services.
- Recognize and honor artistic and civic contributions of Michael A. Gibbons.
- Allow expanded practice dental hygienist to perform interim therapeutic restoration.
- Recognize University of Oregon Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert for outstanding season and remarkable career.
- Require the Department of Transportation to study development of uniform standards for speed bump height and markings.
- Congratulate Rogue Creamery for winning top prize at World Cheese Awards.
- Establish a Task Force to Promote Social Equity in the Cannabis Industry.
- Establish a product stewardship program for mattresses.
- Authorize Oregon Business Development Department to award matching grants to membership organizations and business accelerators in outdoor gear and apparel industry.
- Prohibit abortion unless physician has first determined probable post-fertilization age of unborn child, except in case of medical emergency. Prohibits abortion of unborn child with probable post-fertilization age of 20 or more weeks, except in case of medical emergency
- Require health care practitioner to exercise proper degree of care to preserve health and life of child born alive after abortion or attempted abortion. Requires health care practitioner to ensure child born alive is transported to hospital.
- And of course, allow Oregon voters to decide whether to change the constitution so a majority of the legislature constitutes a quorum, rather than the current two-thirds.
The problem for Democrats during this short session is that Article IV, section 12 of the Oregon Constitution says “two thirds of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business.” With the Republican walkout, there’s no quorum, so business is halted.
Just as Congressional rules can be effectively wielded in political battles, it is hardly undemocratic for a party to rely upon Oregon’s constitution to advance or hinder legislative action. Moreover, the Democrats should be cautious in pushing for change. If they convince voters to amend the constitution to consider a simple majority a quorum in the future, that could come back to bite them if Republicans regain control.