Republicans in the Oregon state Legislature are outnumbered.
Democrats enjoy supermajorities in the House and Senate. They have a governor (who isn’t seeking re-election) in Mahonia Hall.
From the start, Democrats made it clear they saw this legislative session as an opportunity to pass a progressive agenda, from raising $2 billion in taxes to fund schools to ushering through a cap-and-trade program aimed at curbing carbon.
The GOP can’t stop many of those Democrat-pushed initiatives. They simply lack the numbers.
But they can delay the work by relying on arcane — but useful, if you’re in the minority party — procedural moves that can slow the legislative process to an agonizing pace.
The state constitution requires, before the final passage of a bill, that the measure be read in full. Normally, lawmakers agree to skip that requirement and only read the title of a bill. Waiving that rule requires a two-thirds vote, which means a certain bipartisanship is necessary.
For nearly a month now — the longest stretch in modern memory — Republicans have forced Democrats to have every measure in the House read in its entirety.
And, in some ways, it’s working for them.
“The big issue with us [is] we went a number of months without being consulted on any of the major policies being debated here,” said House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass. “And only after we went to bill reading did we get someone coming to us and say, ‘OK, this is getting bothersome, what will it take to make you stop this?’”
The two parties in the House are now locked in negotiations. But as the backlog of House bills grows and the House Speaker schedules rare evening and possibly weekend floor sessions, it’s less clear how effective the strategy will be going forward.
In the meantime, House reading clerk Lacy Ramirez is charged with reading the legislation out loud.
Ramirez powers through the bills, word by word, statute by statute. She averages about three minutes per page. Some readings have stretched into a couple of days.
Ramirez estimated she’s read more than 421 pages, with only limited help from others, and spent more than 21 hours reading out loud this session.
Over in the Senate, Republicans used a different statute in the constitution to force Democrats to engage, the one requiring a minimum number of people be present in order for the Legislature to do business.
These kinds of delaying tactics have been used before: In 2001, Democrats in the House were in the minority.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was in the House then and recently recounted her part in the walkout on her podcast. Johnson said she paid using a credit card at one motel, but then worried it would be easy for the Oregon State Police to find her.
“I’m sitting in this motel and the phone rang. … I fled that hotel and went to another hotel and checked in with cash. I convinced myself I would be a very bad felon on the lam,” Johnson said.
Over in the House, it’s not uncommon to hear a lawmaker complain about the floor sessions dragging on. But Ramirez is staying upbeat.
“I welcome the challenge … Every single day I like that it’s different,” she said. “And I read different things, and I’m learning a lot.”
Meanwhile, the pile of House bills grows.