With a partisan standoff making it increasingly likely Oregon’s legislative session will conclude Sunday with just three bills to its credit, Democrats who remain in the Capitol have had time on their hands to consider a problem: how to make sure this never happens again.
They've considered changes to the Legislature's two-thirds quorum rule, which allows a minority party to freeze the Capitol in place if members don't show up. And they've mulled over a bill that would ensure Republicans can't use money from campaign donors to fund trips out of state during a boycott, or to pay fines.
The latest notion? Preventing Republicans – or any party that walks in the future – from running out the clock. A diminished Senate Rules Committee Tuesday is expected to take up a proposal that would rejigger the time limitations currently in place for annual legislative sessions.
Currently the Oregon Constitution says that sessions can last a maximum of 160 calendar days in odd years, and 35 calendar days in even years – a provision that means lawmakers are forced to gavel out no matter what does or doesn’t get done in that time. The 2020 session, for instance, must adjourn by 11:59 p.m. on March 8, regardless of the fact little meaningful business has been conducted for a week.
But the new proposal – an amendment to Senate Joint Resolution 201 – would change "calendar days" to "session days." Under that tweak, only days when chambers gavel into floor session, with a quorum present, would count toward the allotted total.
The idea would need to be approved by Oregon voters.
“Obviously we’re just trying to figure out what we can do to stop these things from happening,” Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said Monday. “The cleanest way to do it would be to change the quorum requirement, but there’s been a little bit of polling on [that] and its very clear that the public would need some education.”
Like nearly every idea floated in the Capitol this session, the proposal's prospects are practically nonexistent.
Without at least two Republicans present in each chamber, Democrats can’t pass legislation. Even if the Senate Rules Committee adopts the idea and sends it to the full Senate, it will land in a growing queue of possibly doomed bills.
Tuesday marked seven business days since Senate Republicans fled the Capitol, and six days since House Republicans joined them.
Reportedly holed up in various out-of-state locales, the absent Republicans say they’ll remain gone so long as Senate Bill 1530 is still alive. The bill would set a declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, and force large polluters to obtain credits for their emissions.
Democrats have vowed not to sacrifice the bill in order to pass other priorities, and Senate and House leaders announced Monday there would be no horse trading to get Republicans back in the building.
Rejiggering session deadlines would be something of a return to an earlier time. Before voters enacted annual sessions in 2010, Oregon’s semi-annual sessions had no hard end date. That robbed some power from minority boycotts, because absent lawmakers couldn’t simply wait the session out.
Democrats are proposing a similar dynamic here.
“It addresses not the quorum directly, but the fixed session length,” said Tom Powers, caucus administrator for the Senate Democrats, who helped craft the proposal. “You wouldn’t be able to basically have a minority veto through walkout.”
The idea could create complexities if, say, lawmakers in the House launched a boycott – freezing the chamber's running count of "session days" – but the Senate kept working. In such an instance, the two chambers would need to coordinate their timelines in order to be able to adjourn on the same day.
“I think people are very frustrated to have a minority able to shut down the government, which is what it amounts to,” Burdick said. “I want to start the conversations about doing something serious to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Deadline changes weren’t the only proposals being discussed Tuesday. In a release, Service Employees International Union 503, the state’s largest public-employee union, announced it was moving forward with two proposed ballot measures meant to punish lawmakers who walk out.
Under one proposal, initiative petition 63, lawmakers would become ineligible to run for re-election if they amassed 10 or more unexcused absences from a floor session. The other, IP 64, would institute $500 daily fines for legislators who are absent without permission, and disallow them from receiving salaries while away, among other things.
Those ideas drew criticism Tuesday from one lawmaker who could have outsized power under such a system.
As a presiding officer, Senate President Peter Courtney has say in whether absent lawmakers are excused or unexcused. But while he had blistering remarks for absent Republicans in the last week — even accusing them Tuesday of promoting "anarchy" — Courtney cautions against a penalty system involving unexcused absences.
“We need to take a look at this issue of the structure of the legislature and come up with a very fair but solid and balanced way" to change things, Courtney said. "I don’t think you should use that as a way because you could get a presiding officer who would abuse it."
Oregon’s constitution allows the Legislature to “compel” absent lawmakers to attend session, but there’s not a lot of clarity on what that means. The Senate in the past has sent state police after truant lawmakers, but that tactic has not been effective when legislators cross state lines.
Last week, House Democrats issued subpoenas to Republicans in that chamber, demanding that they appear before a House committee on March 5. Republicans have been defiant in the face of that move, and as of Tuesday morning it appeared unlikely they would comply.
“My family and I have been in three states in the last week,” Rep. Cedric Hayden, a Roseburg Republican, said Friday, “with more in the schedule.”