A sliver of the Oregon Senate refuses to come to 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 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The origin of the quirks may be lost to the past or rendered out-of-date by changes in technology.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 as long as the words remain in the state’s central document, they can be used by 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 simply are ways for the minority party to be ignored at the peril of the majority. 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. At that point, Democrats could overcome the most disruptive steps that Republicans can take: the walk-out and the slow-down.
Oregon is one of four states where the minimum number of lawmakers who have to be present in order to establish a quorum to meet is more than a simple majority. In Oregon, it is two-thirds.
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. They instead offered to block a vote on a gun control bill and a requirement for schoolchildren to be vaccinated that had already been approved by the House. Republicans accepted 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 the last two days of the session, when Democrats promised not to bring up the bill before adjournment. On the last weekend before they were required to adjourn, Democrats and Republicans 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 session with just a handful of bills having been sent to the governor out of hundreds that awaited action at the end.
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 issue for the House in 2021 was on another issue decided by the two-thirds vote. Bills were supposed to be read out loud in their entirety before final passage. It was a vestige of a period when lawmakers traveling to Salem might not have had a chance to actually read or hear what they were voting on.
With materials now on the state website and hard copies going to lawmakers, the House had more frequently sought to waive the rule and read the bill’s short title only before taking a vote.
But the rule remained on the books and required a motion for the waiver. If there was an objection, a vote was taken. Unless two-thirds of the vote was in favor of the waiver, the bill would have to be read in its entirety.
Objections to waivers would occur from time to time. Requiring the full reading of a bill had been used from time to time as a way to slow debate on a controversial bill. It can call attention to specific passages, rally forces and irritate 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 it was a way to protest the expansive Democratic agenda and the inability of Republicans to get their own bills considered.
“The House is running a crushing number of committees and pushing controversial legislation,” Drazan said.
It was also a lower profile form of protest. With even Republican polls showing suburban GOP backers didn’t like the walkouts of the prior year, the full reading became a substitute. The House would still meet, but hours and even days would be taken up with readings.
Initially, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, escalated the stakes by scheduling morning, afternoon and evening sessions of the full House — including Saturdays.
The apex of the fight came on the day the machine was reading hundreds of thousands of words of 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 with a droning metallic female voice was brought in to read to a nearly empty chamber. The bill on technical changes around the renaming of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission took more than a day.
The stalling tactics ended only after an agreement between Kotek and Drazan. The most controversial aspect was Kotek appointing Drazan to the five-member House Redistricting Committee, which will draw new political maps for 2022 legislative and congressional districts. The move gave Republicans parity with Democrats on the committee — with three members each.
Some top Democrats slammed the move as giving Republicans an equal voice on redistricting when Democrats made up the largest number of voters and lawmakers.
Kotek said her focus was on getting the House agenda through the Legislature before the end of the 2021 session. The bills topped any considerations about the makeup of a committee that would be part of a possible reapportionment of Oregon’s congressional districts.
“We had important work to get done, so we did it,” Kotek said.