With just 11 days left in Oregon’s 2023 legislative session and negotiations to end a Senate walkout on a knife’s edge, Democrats are lobbing a rhetorical hand grenade.
More than 40 legislative Democrats have signed on to a resolution that, if passed, would ask voters to change Oregon’s requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers must be present for a chamber to pass bills. House Joint Resolution 30 proposes that a simple majority of lawmakers be present to conduct business, the standard in the vast majority of states.
Such a change would put an end to the legislative walkouts that have become near-annual events in the Capitol over the last four years, ensuring that the majority party could always carry out business on its own, regardless of whether members of the minority choose to be present.
The resolution, supporters concede, has no chance of passing this year. But it’s a sign that Democrats are ready to acknowledge their last plan for ending walkouts has been a flop.
“It’s a conversation that benefits from getting started, rather than having that conversation get started six months from now or a year and a half from now,” said state Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, a chief sponsor of the resolution. “This is our last opportunity to do so this session.”
Last year’s Measure 113 sought to block lawmakers from walking away by ensuring they could not run for reelection if they received 10 or more unexcused absences. The measure was pushed by Democrats and their allies in public-sector unions, who believed they could easily sell voters on a simple idea: If lawmakers don’t come to work, they should be fired.
But 10 conservative senators – who make up a full third of the Senate — breezed past the 10-absence mark in May. Some of those lawmakers have suggested they might challenge the measure in court.
In the meantime, their six-week walkout has imperiled hundreds of bills with time on the session running short.
“In this particular session I can say [Measure 113] has not worked,” said state Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, another chief sponsor of the resolution. “I can’t speak to what it’s gonna be like in four years, but I can say it definitely has not worked this session…. and so we need to look at all the tools available.”
Pham hopes the resolution kickstarts a public conversation about ending walkouts for good.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, another sponsor, said Wednesday that he suspects changing the quorum threshold could be taken up in next year’s monthlong “short” session.” Or it could be the subject of a petition to get a measure on the 2024 ballot.
“We’ve heard from many constituents calling on us to seek this change,” Dembrow said. “Many Republicans have also said that this would have been a better question to put before the voters than [Measure 113] last November.”
It’s true that some Senate Republicans have criticized Measure 113 for failing to live up to its promise. “It didn’t change the quorum requirement,” state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said last month. “If that was the move they had made, to change the quorum to [a simple majority], that would have cured this issue.”
But that’s not the same as saying Republicans would support a change to the state’s constitutional rules.
The GOP has argued in recent years that Oregon’s quorum requirement was conceived intentionally to ensure that the minority party has options for exerting leverage. (Oregon based its Constitution on Indiana’s which also requires a two-thirds quorum.) Both parties have used the tactic when in the minority, with Democrats walking out in 2001 to block Republican-drawn political maps.
But Democrats, who have held majorities in both chambers for the last decade, now say the strategy is too extreme.
“There are issues that any one of us would feel strongly enough about to use any tool available,” Gomberg said. “The larger question is: Should we have tools available that people can use and grind the entire process to a halt because they have such strong feelings about one or two issues?”
In 2021, Democrats floated four separate proposals to curb walkouts. They included a proposal that wound up moving forward as Measure 113, and also a proposal to change the quorum requirement to a simple majority.
But Republicans refused to attend the one committee hearing those concepts received– a clear sign that the party might be willing to walk away if Democrats attempted to move the bills forward.
This time, the Democrats’ proposal comes as the two parties are trying to negotiate an end to the longest walkout in state history. In recent days, top lawmakers have been haggling over possible changes to contentious bills on abortion, gun safety, climate change and more.
Senate Minority Tim Knopp, R-Bend, did not respond when asked on Wednesday about the resolution to change quorum rules.
Pham and Gomberg said Democrats might have introduced the proposal earlier, but that they wanted to make sure the move wouldn’t disrupt the ongoing negotiations. Notably, none of the top Democrats engaged in those negotiations are listed as sponsors.
“We’ve gotten far enough down the road that it’s not going to make things worse,” said Gomberg, who believes that earlier in session some Republicans might even have signed on to the resolution.
The two sides appear to be getting closer to a détente. Bonham on Monday likened negotiations to painting a house.
“We’ve agreed that the house should be painted blue,” he said. “We said the house should be navy. They said the house should be sky blue.”
Lawmakers are running out of time to pick a hue. The session must adjourn on June 25.