SALEM, Ore. – Walkouts by Republicans in Oregon's Legislature have become so frequent, with GOP lawmakers torpedoing progressive legislation, that Democrats want to sanction boycotters with $500 daily fines and even disqualify them from holding office.
The issue has become acrimonious, with Democrats saying the boycotts harm the democratic functioning of the state. Oregon is particularly vulnerable to boycotts because, while 46 of the other statehouses in America require only a simple majority for a quorum, the northwestern state requires two-thirds of lawmakers to be present.
Democrats have most of the seats in the Oregon Legislature, but lack the two-thirds majority to conduct business if Republicans stay away.
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Rules held an emotional public hearing on four measures that seek to deprive Republicans of the leverage from quorum rules that critics say they have weaponized.
“I’m looking forward to engaging in a debate about how we can continue to address this flaw in our democracy,” said Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, the committee chairman.
This is the third straight year in which Republicans have used walkouts. They have also sometimes insisted that bills be read in full, causing bills to stack up after they leave committees, and delaying floor votes on them.
The Legislature's 2020 session ended early, and acrimoniously, because of a Republican boycott over a climate change measure. House Speaker Tina Kotek said then that Republicans violated their constitutional duty of voting on bills, adding: “We have been held hostage by a small group of elected representatives.”
The previous year, a GOP senator indicated he'd resist with gunfire if state troopers were sent to bring him back to the Capitol.
This year, Republicans have already been absent from a Senate floor session. GOP lawmakers have also insisted on bills being read in full, leading Kotek to schedule night sessions in the House.
The day of this year's walkout, the Senate Republican caucus asked the governor to immediately reopen schools for full, in-person instruction. Republican Senators had felt their demands for eased COVID-19 restrictions went unheard.
At Thursday's hearing, held remotely via Zoom because the Capitol is closed to the public (Republicans say it should be open), ordinary Oregonians got on their computers and phones to vent their anger at GOP lawmakers who boycott. They said they'd be fired if they missed work.
Rich Hobbins, a math teacher, was on the verge of tears as he described how last summer's wildfires destroyed his home in southern Oregon, turning him, his partner and their two puppies into refugees, bouncing from place to place until they settled in a hotel.
“I tell you all this because nowhere during this whole traumatic experience did I leave my job," Hobbins said, choking back a sob. “I stayed connected and working for the people who depended on me, my students, my school district, my community and my family.”
But there was also testimony opposing the measures.
“This bill is a partisan move so that one party can get its way,” said Rose Kaler, of Lebanon, Oregon, who pointed out that Democrats had boycotted two decades ago when they were the minority party.
The measures that Democrats put forward in hopes of ending boycotts would:
- Ask voters to amend the Oregon Constitution so that lawmakers who miss 10 or more scheduled legislative floor sessions without permission are disqualified from holding office as senator or representative after the member’s current term of office.
- Ask voters to amend the Oregon Constitution to change the minimum quorum requirement to a simple majority.
- Prohibit anyone with an unexcused absence from receiving salary, per diem or expense reimbursement, and impose a fine of $500 per day.
- Prohibit lawmakers from soliciting or using contributions to pay fines or legal expenses or otherwise compensate them from losses incurred as result of unexcused absences.
Two Republican senators — Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod and Sen. Kim Thatcher — belong to the five-member rules committee.
But neither the rest of the committee, nor all the people who testified or who were watching on their devices, could hear what the GOP lawmakers were thinking during the hearing.
That's because they did not show up.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky