Democratic lawmakers keen on ratcheting up consequences for Republicans who walk out of the Capitol got a clear sign on Thursday that their efforts might be doomed: In the first hearing over proposals to fine, eject, and otherwise penalize legislators who flee the Capitol, Republicans pulled a no-show.
At the afternoon hearing of the Senate Rules Committee, all three Democratic committee members appeared, as did U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and plenty of others ready to chastise lawmakers who’ve repeatedly fled the Legislature in recent years. But the two Republicans on the committee, Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, and Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, were conspicuously absent.
“I’m disappointed that we lost a couple of committee members,” Sen. Rob Wagner, a Lake Oswego Democrat and the committee’s chair said. “They will be marked absent.”
The scene illustrated the challenge dominant Democrats have in attempting to alter rules or pass new laws that could make it more painful for Republicans to block bills by denying a quorum. Any attempt to move those bills risks sending the GOP once again toward the exits less than halfway through the 2021 session.
Even so, Senate Democrats called up a suite of proposals for consideration on Thursday. Included in the package the committee considered:
- Senate Bill 261 would block lawmakers from using political contributions to pay for any fines, legal fees or loss of salary they incur for unexcused absences.
- Senate Bill 262 would block lawmakers from receiving pay, and institute a $500 fine, for any day that a lawmaker has an unexcused absence from a floor session.
- Senate Joint Resolution 3 would ask voters to amend the state constitution, in order to ensure that lawmakers who have 10 or more unexcused absences cannot run for reelection.
- Senate Joint Resolution 4 would ask voters to change the Legislature’s quorum rules so that a simple majority, rather than two-thirds of lawmakers, are required to conduct business.
Those bills saw unanimous support from people who signed up to testify on Thursday. Even supporters of Republican walkouts made themselves scarce.
Leading off testimony was Merkley, who noted that legislative action will be vital to help distribute billions of dollars Oregon will receive as part of the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan recently passed by Congress.
“There is not a single day to waste and partnership and collaboration are needed,” Merkley said. “I’m deeply concerned about how repeated and lengthy legislative shutdowns can affect the state’s ability to get the work done.”
Merkley, a former longtime state lawmaker, called the tactics employed in recent years a “minority veto” over Democratic proposals. He compared the repeated walkouts to the status quo in the U.S. Senate, where merely indicating an intent to filibuster is enough to ensure 60 votes are required to move forward on a bill.
“Here we have a supermajority requirement to close debate,” Merkley said. “The result has not been compromised but obstruction. The Senate is no longer the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
While Merkley noted that he’d spent eight years in the minority while serving in the statehouse, he did not mention the fact that he served in a caucus that fled the capitol. In 2001, House Democrats walked out in order to block a Republican maneuver having to do with redrawing legislative districts. They returned after the passage of a constitutional deadline that rendered the Republican tactic moot.
The 2001 walkout is often pointed to by GOP members as proof that the strategy has a bipartisan history. But Republicans have used what was once considered a “nuclear option” with increasing frequency since giving up supermajorities in both chambers during the 2018 election.
Senate Republicans have launched extended walkouts three times in order to block Democratic priorities since 2019. House Republicans joined in during the 2020 session, helping ensure the Legislature passed just two bills.
Republicans in both chambers have also engaged in one-off no-shows, refusing to attend a single floor session as a form of protest. Senate Republicans employed that tactic earlier this year not to protest legislation but in opposition to Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The strategy is possible because of Oregon’s atypical quorum rules which require two-thirds of members to be present in order to conduct business on a chamber floor. Only a handful of other states require such a high threshold.
Frustration over the tactics — and their potency at locking up the legislative process — was clear on Thursday, as person after person accused GOP lawmakers of abdicating their duty.
A Jackson County math teacher named Rich Hobbins described losing his home in last year’s wildfires, finding shelter in a motel, and still routinely working with students.
“Ironically we have to have a discussion about our leaders [not walking] out on their jobs,” Hobbins said. “These are the same leaders who make the rules for people who did not walk out of their jobs.”
Kelly McWilliams, a Polk County business owner, testified that Oregonians are “being held hostage by tantrums rather than being served by our leaders.”
Peter Hall, a city councilor in the Baker County town of Haines, noted something many other witnesses did not: That there is a political upside for Republicans who block Democratic priorities.
“They’re doing much of what their constituents want them to do. That’s stop the liberal agenda.” Hall said.
State Rep. Bill Post, a Keizer Republican, tweeted a similar thought as the hearing was playing out.
“I denied quorum last year,” Post wrote. “I worked EVERY day that I denied quorum only it was from a remote location... My voters thanked me with more votes than ever in my district. Tool in the toolbox.”
Whether the enthusiasm on display on Thursday will amount to an effort by Democrats to pass their proposals is unclear. Wagner, the committee chair, noted at the end of the hearing that “many people I’ve talked to don’t want us to have these discussions because they think they’ll enflame tensions or incite division. But I think more of people than that.”
If lawmakers do not wind up moving legislation, voters still could have a say in the matter. Two initiative petitions filed for the 2022 general election could lead to ballot measures authorizing voters to penalize or eject legislators with unexcused absences.
Democrats have been able to take some action to guard against Republican absences this session. House rules now allow members to be fined $500 a day if their unexcused absence prevents a quorum in the chamber. Senate Democrats have proposed a similar rule in that chamber, but have been met with pushback.