House Democrats will use subpoenas to require absent Republicans’ attendance in the Capitol, four days into a political standoff that has shuttered the Legislature.
In a meeting of the House Rules Committee, collected Democrats voted 4-0 to authorize the committee’s chair, Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, to subpoena the 21 Republicans lawmakers who have been absent since Tuesday.
The subpoenas theoretically require the lawmakers to appear before the committee on March 5, and to be “prepared to testify about your unexcused absences during the 2020 regular session of the Legislative Assembly.”
"We feel this is within our legal right to ask our colleagues to come back and explain before a committee why they feel it’s okay for them to not do their job," House Speaker Tina Kotek said Thursday evening.
The strategy comes after Democrats telegraphed earlier in the day that they had limited options for forcing absent Republicans back to the Capitol. But it raises significant questions.
Under state law, people who fail to abide such subpoenas can be compelled by a judge's order. But the Oregon Constitution gives lawmakers immunity from civil processes while the Legislature is in session, a point that manufacturers backing the truant lawmakers immediately pointed out Thursday.
Kotek and Holvey acknowledged that provision but said they couldn't speak to how it might apply to the absent lawmakers. They also declined to say whether they would ask for a judge's order if Republicans failed to show up at the appointed time.
"We can spend a week trying to figure out the answer to that question or we can take our best option on the table," Kotek said. "We’re on a timeline. We have to finish our business by the 8th of March."
Democrats hired a process server on Thursday to deliver the documents, Kotek said. Neither she nor Holvey was certain how the service would locate Republicans, many of whom are apparently biding their time out of state.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan issued a statement Thursday evening, calling the subpoenas "strong-arm tactics."
"We will not be intimidated," Drazan said. "We remain resolved to serve the hardworking families of Oregon who have asked for the abuse of power to end and for cap and trade to be referred to the people."
The subpoenas had come with some forewarning. In a choreographed dialogue on the House floor Thursday morning, Holvey and Kotek discussed the ongoing boycott, and what Democrats might do to compel Republicans to return.
The lawmakers mentioned sending state police to retrieve the Republicans, and freezing their staffing and supplies budgets. Kotek noted that she did not have power to dock lawmakers' pay or issue fines. Subpoenas were not mentioned, though evidently already on Democrats' mind.
Holvey called a hearing of his Rules Committee on Thursday afternoon and brought the subpoenas in tow. Before announcing his intentions, he quizzed Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson on what Democrats' options are for forcing Republicans to return, but arrived at no answers.
"The subpoenas will be served and the Republicans that are absent will have to decide about whether they are going to comply with that," Holvey said Thursday. "I hope they do, because we have important business to do."
House Republicans walked away from the Capitol on Tuesday in order to block Democrats from passing climate change legislation this session. Senate Republicans had fled the building a day earlier, after the bill, Senate Bill 1530, advanced toward a vote in the Senate.
The bill would set a declining cap on Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions, and require polluters to obtain credits for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit.
By walking away, Republicans have denied Democrats the two-thirds quorum necessary to conduct business. While legislative committees have kept somewhat busy moving bills along, the full House and Senate have been unable to take up meaningful business.
Time is running short on the five-week legislative short session. Under the state constitution, lawmakers are required to adjourn on March 8 at latest. With Republicans demanding that SB 1530 be referred to voters, and Democrats refusing, it's becoming increasingly possible no more bills will be passed before the Legislature gavels out.
"I will be really honest," Kotek said. "I am not optimistic that we will resolve this. This conversation for the subpoenas and whether they honor them could go past the constitutional deadline."