Mon. Jul 26th, 2021

SALEM — A sliver of the Oregon Senate refuses to come to the the Capitol for votes, killing an entire session of the Legislature.

A single Oregon House member objects to waiving archaic parliamentary rules, forcing the pace of lawmaking from fast-forward to super slo-mo.

Despite three straight years of crises and close calls, lawmakers adjourned June 26 without even starting the reform of the key quirks in the Oregon constitution that impact the Legislature.

The origin of the quirks may be lost to the past or rendered out-of-date by changes in technology.

But old rules can have new uses. Unusual or archaic rules left in the constitution are available to a determined minority of lawmakers to try to get instant leverage against majority rule. 

“These are tools,” said House Chief Clerk Timothy Sekerak. “If a tool is available, someone is going to use it.”

Old rules, new uses

The quirks are not labeled as Republican or Democrat. They allow the minority party to deploy parliamentary rules to have a major impact on the majority party and its agenda. For most of the 21st century, the minority party role has been held by Republicans.

Once a political juggernaut in the Oregon Capitol, the Republican party today often faces a fight for relevance in state politics.

No Republican has been elected governor since Vic Atiyeh won a second term in 1982. The GOP last held undisputed control of the Senate in 2003, and the House in 2005.

Democrats currently hold 37 of 60 House seats and 18 of 30 Senate seats. With these “supermajorities” of over three-fifths in each chamber, Democrats have the votes to pass any legislation without Republican votes.

In terms of voting in committees and on the floor, the Republican numbers make passing any part of their agenda next to impossible. 

House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, laid out a bleak role for his dwindling caucus prior to the 2019 session.

“At the end of the day, how much impact will that have on the Democrats? Probably none, because in a superminority status we’re essentially not even legislative speed bumps,” he said.

The last fraction

Democrats are past two key fractions for determining the direction of the Legislature. They have a majority, which means they pick the House speaker and Senate President, plus the chairs of all committees. With over three-fifths of the seats, they can pass taxes and other financial bills requiring a 60% vote.

But they didn’t hold two-thirds of the seats in either chamber. Only by exceeding that fraction could Democrats overcome the most disruptive steps Republicans can take: the walk-out and the slow-down.

Oregon is one of four states where the quorum for the state legislature is more than a simple majority. The constitution requires that at least two-thirds of members be present for any floor session.

Currently, Democrats are two votes short of the two-thirds mark in the Senate and three votes short in the House.

Republicans have used the quorum rule to walk out in each of the past three sessions. The results have been mixed.

In 2019, Senate Republicans walked out over a pending vote on a business tax to fund schools. Senate Democrats wouldn’t agree to kill the tax bill. Their counter-offer was a promise to block voting on a gun control bill and vaccination requirements for schoolchildren. 

Both bills had passed the House. But the Senate inaction would effectively kill the bills for the session. Republicans accepted the deal and returned after four days away.

A second walkout that year was over a bill to cap carbon emissions in Oregon. No compromise was found until just days before the constitutionally mandated deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.

Over the last weekend of the 160-day session, Republicans returned to the Capitol. The House and Senate quick-marched the state budget bills to the governor’s desk, then adjourned.

When the carbon cap returned in 2020, nearly all Republicans in both the House and Senate walked out and never came back. Without a quorum, the clock ran out on the 35-day session. Just a handful of bills were sent to the governor out of hundreds awaiting action before the walk out.

This year, Republicans announced ahead of time that their walkout was a one-day protest over Gov. Kate Brown’s sweeping powers to open and close businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quirks build expectations

Other than the symbolic one-day boycott at the beginning of the session, the Senate had enough lawmakers on any given day to establish a quorum.

Democrats had slammed Republicans during the 2020 election over the walkouts. But GOP incumbents found the move was a double-edged sword. Many Republicans approved of the walkout and wanted lawmakers to do it more often.

When a gun control bill came up in the Senate, the Oregon Firearms Federation asked lawmakers to walk out and deny a quorum. The Republicans in the Senate split on the issue. 

Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said no to the walkout. The state was dealing with a pandemic and was just starting work on a state budget. Leaving more than three months prior to the expected adjournment would be irresponsible. He also worried about normalizing walkouts among GOP supporters.

“People now expect it for all bills that, from a Republican perspective, are seen as a bad bill,” Girod told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Showdown on a slowdown

While the Senate had wrestled with walkouts, the House battle centered on a slow down that also involved a two-thirds vote.

Bills were supposed to be read out loud in their entirety before a vote on final passage. It was a vestige of a time when it was possible for lawmakers to travel to Salem and arrive without having read or heard what they were voting on.

With materials now on the state website that can be accessed from devices anywhere in the world, the full reading on the House floor was a relic. The House would routinely approve a motion to waive the rules and have bills announced by a clerk reading their short titles.

But the rule remained on the books. If there was an objection to the motion, then a vote was taken. Unless two-thirds of House members were in favor of the waiver, the bill would have to be read in its entirety.

Objections to waivers would occur from time to time when controversial legislation came up for a vote. It was a way to call extra attention on a bill, rally forces and irritate the majority party leadership.

The new wrinkle in 2021 was that House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, was making the demand across the board — every bill on every day would be read in full.

Drazan said the blanket objection was a way to protest what she said was an overly expansive Democratic agenda. 

“The House is running a crushing number of committees and pushing controversial legislation,” Drazan said.

The slowdown was also a lower profile form of protest than the walkouts. While popular was the GOP base, polling showed swing voters were not fond of the idea. who might consider casting their ballot for a Republican lawmaker didn’t like the action.

Requiring the full reading of a bill served as a more discreet substitute. It clogged up the pipeline of bills as the clock kept ticking toward adjournment.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, initially responded by scheduling morning, afternoon and evening sessions of the full House — including Saturdays. 

The apex of the fight was a bill that primarily involved technical changes in statutes so that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission could change its name to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. It was uncontroversial — but epically long.

A reading machine that spoke in a droning metallic monotone was brought in to read the 170-page bill to a nearly empty chamber over two days.

The stalling tactics ended only after an agreement between Kotek and Drazan. The most controversial aspect was Kotek appointing Drazan to the House committee 

The panel and its Senate counterpart would draw new legislative and congressional district maps to be used in the 2022 election.

Kotek’s move gave the House committee three members from each party. But the new political parity is at odds with the Senate’s redistricting committee. It maintains the traditional split of three Democrats and two Republicans. How the mismatched panels will intersect remains a work in progress.

Some Democratic leaders publicly slammed Kotek’s action as giving Republicans an equal voice in a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans.

Kotek said after the session that getting the House agenda on housing, health, unemployment and other issues was a higher priority than the partisan composition of the House redistricting panel.

“We had important work to get done, so we did it,” Kotek said.