With Democrats in the Texas House fleeing the state this week to block a Republican bill curbing voting access, the comparisons with Oregon have been inevitable.
Like Oregon, the minority party in Texas can shut down legislative action by blocking the majority from achieving a two-thirds quorum needed to conduct business. Like Oregon, Texas’ majority party has accused the minority of blocking key priorities and taking a taxpayer-funded vacation, rather than serving their constituents. And like Oregon, lawmakers in the minority have insisted they are doing what’s right to serve their districts.
One major difference: In Oregon, unlike Texas, it is Democrats who reign supreme. And that’s made for something of an awkward reckoning.
Republicans here have welcomed the comparison, seeing the Texas standoff as proof the “nuclear option” presented by walkouts is a commonsense tool for a minority party. Democrats say the two states shouldn’t be lumped together.
“It’s one thing to take a principled stand on something as sacred as the right to vote,” Hannah Kurowski, a spokeswoman for Oregon House Democrats, said in an email to OPB. “It’s another thing entirely to do what Oregon GOP lawmakers have done, which is to shut the Legislature down year after year after year because they are mad voters reject their extreme ideology.”
Kurowski suggested that comparing the two states is a “false dichotomy” because the issues in Texas involve the rights of historically marginalized communities of color to vote, and Oregon’s standoffs did not.
“There really isn’t a comparison to be made,” she wrote.
As Oregon Republicans have hastened to point out in recent days, that’s a more nuanced view than Democrats here offered when Republican lawmakers refused to show up in 2019, 2020 and for a single day in this year’s session.
Most of those walkouts were rooted in Republican opposition to a bill that would have reduced Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions — a step Republicans argued would cut jobs and hike prices in their districts. Republicans in the Oregon Senate have also walked out to protest a new business tax and the closure of schools due to COVID-19.
But Democrats have insisted that the walkouts by Oregon Republicans were part of a larger attack on democracy that verged on hijacking the state’s system of governance.
“We must acknowledge the walkout for what it is: subversion of democracy and a dereliction of duty,” state Sen. Ginny Burdick, then the Senate majority leader, wrote in an Oregonian op-ed in March 2020. “To call walking out on your oath of office ‘leadership’ is insulting.”
Days later, while announcing the session was prematurely dead because of Republicans’ obstruction, House Speaker Tina Kotek said Republicans were “in clear violation of their one constitutional duty: to vote, on bills, on this floor. They are denying Oregonians their right to a functioning legislature by walking off the job and preventing votes on all the legislation ready for consideration on our floors.”
Spokespeople for Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, did not respond to inquiries on Tuesday.
But many of those same arguments, and some others, have been a hallmark of a labor-backed campaign called “No More Costly Walkouts.” The coalition backing the effort has purchased advertisements accusing lawmakers of accepting their paychecks while refusing to work, and has introduced 10 potential ballot measures that could curb walkouts in Oregon moving forward.
Patty Wentz, a consultant working for the campaign, declined to speak to the situation in Texas on Tuesday, saying she had not been tracking it closely. But she said the repeated disruptions Oregon has seen in recent years showed something in this state was broken.
“Walkouts should be difficult, and they should be rare,” Wentz said. “The problem in Oregon isn’t that there are isolated walkouts every 10 years. They have started to happen regularly.”
Andrea Kennedy-Smith, a chief petitioner in the proposals to impede legislative walkouts in Oregon, did not return a message.
Meanwhile Burdick, the Portland Democratic senator who wrote the fiery op-ed last year, said Tuesday that she, too, sees the situations in the two states as fundamentally different.
“The walkout in Oregon was over policy,” she said. “The walkout in Texas was over measures that strike at the heart of the democracy. I see it as an act of desperation in Texas. … I probably feel as strongly for the Texas Democrats’ walkout as I felt against the Oregon Republicans’.”
Oregon Republicans, meanwhile, have welcomed comparisons to Texas Democrats, many of whom are currently in Washington, D.C, both to avoid arrest in their home state and lobby Congress to pass voting access laws.
“Our position has been consistent,” the Senate Republican Office said in a statement. “Quorum rules are the last tool available to promote bipartisan cooperation, whether we agree or disagree with the policy being protested.” The statement suggested Democrats’ silence on the Texas situation had been “deafening.”
Oregon House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, who led her members on a pilgrimage to Reno during a walkout last year, also drew comparisons between the two states.
“This is a political battle between two opposing parties on a local issue, and both sides are using the legislative tools available to them as is their right,” Drazan said in a statement.
While Oregon’s repeated walkouts have garnered interest, Texas Democrats’ decision to flee the state Capitol in Austin has emerged as a major national news story this week — largely because it’s tied to efforts by Republican majorities around the country to curb voting access.
In a speech Tuesday, President Joe Biden called the struggle over voting rights “a test of our time,” coming as it has after a 2020 election marred by then-President Donald Trump’s lies about vote rigging and election theft.
“We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote,” Biden said Tuesday.
The legislation Texas Democrats are blocking would make mail-in voting more challenging, grant new powers to poll watchers who are affiliated with a specific party, and ban 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting, among other things. Democrats in the state also walked away from the Capitol in May to block similar proposals. Texas already has the country’s most restrictive voting laws, according to one study.
In response to the latest quorum denial, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has pledged to have lawmakers arrested and brought to the Capitol once they return to the state. That’s a similar tack taken by Gov. Kate Brown in 2019, when she instructed Oregon State Police to attempt to find truant Senate Republicans.
Police ultimately didn’t locate a single missing senator, but their involvement caused a scandal when state Sen. Brian Boquist, an Independent who at the time was a registered Republican, seemed to threaten the life of any officer who tried to arrest him.
Oregon and Texas are two of just four states that require two thirds of lawmakers be present to conduct business. In most states, having half a chamber present is sufficient.
Texas has seen walkouts before: In 2003, when Democrats fled the Capitol to block new political maps they said were unfairly gerrymandered.
Oregon saw a walkout over political maps during the same time period, but managed a more bipartisan flair. In 2001, it was Oregon Democrats, then in the minority, fleeing Salem.