Click the player above to hear OPB politics reporter Lauren Dake discuss the history of legislative walkouts, why Senate Republicans say they are boycotting the Capitol and much more.
Oregon Republicans have become quite skilled at exploiting arcane sections of the state’s statutes and constitution to slow the legislative process to a snail’s pace.
It’s worked before. Now, they are trying it again.
On Wednesday, Republicans signaled their ongoing displeasure with bills Democrats are prioritizing this year by walking away from the Capitol, denying the Senate the 20-member quorum necessary to conduct business. At the same time, Republicans filed suit against Democrats in a Marion County court, asking a judge to block the majority party from passing a contentious bill touching on abortion.
“Colleagues, a quorum is not present for the proceedings of the Senate,” said Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, after Democrats had the chamber’s sergeant at arms search the Capitol for missing lawmakers.
On one level, the latest maneuver is surprising. Voters last year approved a statewide ballot measure that ensures stiff penalties if the minority party participates in a walkout. If any lawmaker receives 10 or more unexcused absences in the session, they cannot run for reelection.
But some Republican senators have insisted for months they were willing to test the new law if Democrats pressed forward with an agenda they could not support. That conflict came to a head in recent weeks as Democrats advanced bills creating new gun regulations and adding protections for abortion and gender-affirming care.
“We’ve got some really hyper-partisan bills coming out right now. Bills I don’t think are a true reflection of what Oregonians are asking for,” Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said last week. “I don’t think these are things that have been campaigned on. My level of frustration is high.”
Meanwhile, Democrats tore into Republicans for seeking to stymie issues they say are important to voters.
“The real reason that we see the walkout today is to show that people are obstructing the ability for senators to vote on reproductive freedom and sensible gun safety,” Wagner said in a press conference. “It wasn’t happenstantial that when we were about to consider those bills, that was when we saw people walking off the job.”
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, seated next to Wagner, said “Republicans have been using every trick in the book to try to slow down the process. This is yet just another one of the tricks that they’re trying to use to slow down the process and Oregonians deserve a functional democracy.”
Lieber has been unwavering in recent weeks that her party would be able to pass its agenda this session despite obstruction tactics.
If Republicans are adamant about staying away from the Capitol, the question becomes how long they hold out. Six GOP lawmakers were listed as excused on Wednesday. Two Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, were in attendance. Five senators were marked unexcused: Daniel Bonham, Dennis Linthicum, Lynn Findley, Cedric Hayden and Brian Boquist, who is registered as an Independent.
Republicans could use excused absences as a rotating tactic to milk the clock, swapping out lawmakers who are nearing their 10 unexcused absence mark for lawmakers with a lower tally. Three GOP senators — Art Robinson of Cave Junction, Fred Girod of Stayton and Kim Thatcher of Keizer — are excused at least through the end of the week, public records show. Girod is excused until May 13.
Or the GOP could embrace the walkout as an opportunity to challenge the legality of the new voter-approved measure, something Bonham and Knopp have signaled they were considering.
Long in the legislative minority, Republicans have demonstrated over the years that poring through the state’s constitution and statutes can prove fruitful.
For example, the Oregon Constitution requires that bills be read in full before final passage. For years, lawmakers waived that requirement and only read the bill’s title. Waiving the rule, however, requires a two-thirds vote, which means support from both sides of the political aisle.
In 2016, Republicans stopped voting to waive the rule, meaning Democrats had to burn time reading sometimes-lengthy bills in full. The tactic has since become commonplace — so much so that GOP senators have dictated that almost every bill be read in full in their chamber this year.
Walkouts, too, have become somewhat commonplace. In 2019, Republican senators staged two separate boycotts. The party succeeded that year in blocking bills on vaccine mandates and gun regulations, and played a role in preventing a contentious climate change bill from winning support. Then in 2020, GOP members in both chambers left, blowing up that year’s 35-day short session.
The practice is not exclusive to Republicans. House Democrats walked away from the Capitol in 2001, when they were in the minority, in order to block a Republican plan for new political maps.
In 2019, then-Gov. Kate Brown sent Oregon state troopers to find lawmakers who’d walked out, with no success. Gov. Tina Kotek ruled out that move on Wednesday.
“We have public safety issues around the state. I’m not sending out the Oregon State Police,” Kotek told reporters. “What I will say is I intend to call the Republican leader when I get a second and say, ‘What’s going on?’ We’ve had regular meetings, I’m disappointed they’re not there and they’ve got work to do.”
This year, Republicans hit on a new tactic they thought might delay Democrats. Relying on a statute that says bill summaries must be “written in a manner that results in a score of at least 60 on the Flesch readability test,” they have attempted this week to delay bills on the basis that those summaries could not be understood by someone who reads at an eighth grade reading level or below.
“Laws are to be plainly written and easy to understand. When the majority of bill summaries written demand a post-graduate degree to understand what the bills do, we disenfranchise Oregonians across the state and violate the law in the process,” Knopp said in a statement.
Knopp argues that, to comply with the law, every bill must go back to the lawyers who draft the bills so they can write the summaries in simpler language. He also suggested each bill be sent back through the committee process before being reconsidered on the Senate and House floors. That would be an incredibly lengthy process as the session is well over halfway through.
Legislative attorneys, Democrats say, gave the green light to move forward with legislation despite Republican claims that the bills are too complex. Dexter Johnson, the Legislature’s top attorney, issued an opinion earlier in the week stating it has not been the Legislature’s practice for decades to write bill summaries at an eighth-grade reading level. “Custom, usage and precedent” means lawmakers do not have to do so today, Johnson wrote.
Wagner described Republican tactics as parliamentary tricks. “We do not feel like that claim that they’re making has any merit and so we’re gonna continue to move forward,” he said Wednesday.
Republicans plainly disagree. In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, state Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, and state Rep. Emily McIntire, R-Eagle Point, joined the anti-abortion advocacy group Oregon Right To Life in a lawsuit seeking to block HB 2002 on the grounds that Democrats had not complied with the law. The lawsuit names Wagner, House Speaker Dan Rayfield and three legislative officials as defendants, and asks a judge to bar the Senate from passing HB 2002 while considering whether the process is legal.
The dynamic in the Senate is not being helped by the tension between the Senate president, Wagner, and his Republican counterpart, Knopp. Republicans made an unprecedented but unsuccessful attempt earlier in the week to remove Wagner as Senate president.
“Since the beginning of the Session, I have argued that Wagner is untrustworthy, deeply partisan, and lacks the necessary skills to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion,” Knopp said in a statement. “That has been proven true every step of the way, and his behavior this week may be the clearest demonstration yet.”
Knopp told OPB that Republicans are operating on a day-to-day basis and would not say how long denying quorum would last.
“We’re not going to talk about what our protest will look like other than to say this is a constitutional protest and we believe it is a legal protest,” he said.
This story may be updated.