Republican members of the Oregon State Legislature have once again executed a Trumpian maneuver and fled the statehouse in Salem to deny Democratic leadership the ability to conduct business in both the House and Senate.
By weaponizing the Oregon Constitution’s quorum requirements, in a move straight out of the playbook of Mitch McConnell, Republicans have brought the Beaver State’s legislative branch to a halt at a time when it is supposed to be tackling pressing issues facing the state… like climate damage:
The state’s understaffed child welfare program, overburdened psychiatric hospital, nearly broke forestry department and other programs all badly need the money, lawmakers said. House Speaker Tina Kotek wants $120 million to pay for shelters and other services to address the state’s homelessness crisis, including using debt to pay for affordable housing preservation and construction.
Now it looks increasingly unlikely those priorities will receive funds, because nearly all the Republicans in the Senate and House walked out of the Capitol this week to halt a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill. In doing so, they are preventing Democrats and the two Republicans who stuck around — Rep. Cheri Helt and Sen. Tim Knopp, both of Bend — from passing bills to appropriate the money, because they cannot reach the state’s constitutional two-thirds quorum requirement necessary to conduct business.
As the excerpt above alludes, Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers, but need at least a few of Republicans around in order to conduct business, because of the following provision in the Oregon Constitution:
Article IV, Section 12. Quorum; failure to effect organization. Two thirds of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may meet; adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members. A quorum being in attendance, if either house fail to effect an organization within the first five days thereafter, the members of the house so failing shall be entitled to no compensation from the end of the said five days until an organization shall have been effected.
By playing hooky en masse, Republicans are effectively shutting down the part of state government that is responsible for making laws and setting budgets.
It’s a hostage-taking move that they first pulled last year, and it was successful in killing off climate action legislation championed by Governor Kate Brown.
Now the Republicans are back at it.
In even numbered years, the Oregon Legislature only meets for about a month, so the clock is ticking to get budgets and bills passed. Republicans know this, and are using Mitch McConnell/Donald Trump/Ted Cruz hostage taking style tactics to sabotage the work of the people’s elected representatives in Salem.
“I’m disappointed that Republicans in both the House and Senate have walked off the job,” Governor Kate Brown said in a statement. “Good lawmaking comes from consensus and compromise. If you don’t like a bill, then show up and work to make it better. Or show up and cast your vote against it.”
If you are a Washingtonian, you might be wondering why Republicans in the Evergreen State have never tried this hostage-taking maneuver themselves.
The answer is that Washington’s Constitution states that a quorum of the Legislature is just a majority. So if the Republicans fled Olympia and refused to do their jobs, the Democrats could simply shrug and carry on without them, passing bills and budgets. Republicans out of power in Washington State cannot shut down the Legislature by running away and ducking their obligations.
But in Oregon, the Republicans can weaponize the quorum requirement.
The Oregon Constitution should be amended to stipulate that a quorum of the Legislature is a majority like it is north of the Columbia River and in Congress.
It makes no sense that the state’s plan of government gives a fraction of its lawmakers the ability to bring the people’s business to a complete halt by refusing to show up for work. Since a majority is sufficient to pass bills; a majority should be sufficient for the purposes of convening floor sessions and holding debates.
In Oregon, constitutional amendments can be introduced and adopted via ballot measure, something else Washington’s Constitution doesn’t allow.
That would seem to be the easiest path to potentially fixing this hugely problematic and structural flaw in the Oregon Constitution.