Seats in the Oregon House of Representatives remain vacant during a Republican boycott of the legislative session. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau).
SALEM - A new dynamic in Oregon politics is emerging following the collapse of the 2020 legislative session.
And the top leaders in the Oregon Senate knew that as the final hours ticked off.
“This institution may have changed forever, and the governor’s office may have changed forever,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat who has held the position since 2003. “I’ll tell you why... this is the new expectation of how you kill a bill.”
Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. commiserated with Courtney privately about what was ahead for state politics.
“This denial of quorum, it scares me to death,” said Baertschiger, who suggested that Democrats supermajority in the House and Senate had turned into “mob rule” leaving Republicans with no option but to flee.
Republicans stalled legislative action by walking out in the 2020 session, focused on killing climate change legislation and letting other vital state action languish. It was the fourth the Republicans used the tactic in the last 10 months.
But rather than seek political peace, the Republicans and Democrats are braced for a bitter election this fall. Democrats could end up in a more dominating position, overcoming the quorum issues that stopped the Senate. The Republicans are ready to campaign against a party they say ignores most of Oregon.
Democrats argue that after campaigning on the issue of climate change in the last election, voters gave them supermajorities in both, and that Republicans were in fact attacking the democratic process.
Republicans argue that Democrats abused their supermajority, trying to ram through a sweeping proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
If Democrats pick up two more seats in each chamber, Republicans no longer would have the tool to bring legislative work to a halt. The proceedings could go on without them.
Democrats have filed to run in every House district in 2020. Molly Woon, deputy director and spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Oregon, said that the party is going to make every Republican legislator who walked out defend their actions.
“They see this as a stunt they can pull that energizes their base,” she said. “I think they are overestimating the size of their base.”
Kevin Hoar, communications director for the Oregon Republican Party, pointed to the Timber Unity rally that drew a convoy of trucks and crowds of people to Salem to protest the climate change legislation as proof that Republican legislators have broad support. He said that Democrats are attempting to impose one-party rule on Oregon.
“I think the Democrats feel like there is no accountability,” he said. “And there will be.”
New rules, new politics?
The Oregon Constitution requires two-thirds of members in a chamber to be present to conduct business, which has given both parties a stall tactic. In 2001, House Democrats, then in the minority, staged a walkout to block a Republican redistricting plan. But the walkout only lasted five days and legislators patched up relationships.
Since then, walkouts have become a more effective tool available for the minority party. The Legislature used to have sessions every other year that didn’t adjourn until lawmakers agreed they’d finished business. In 2010, voters established annual sessions, with a 60-day cap in odd-numbered years and a 35-day cap in even-numbered years.
With that on the number of days lawmakers can meet, the minority party can now deny quorum and run out the calendar like they did in the most recent session.
In 2018 Democrats gained supermajorities in both chambers. They expected those majorities to present a clear path to increase taxes and pass legislation on climate change and gun control. While Democrats had legislative success with student funding, housing, environment and criminal justice reform, their agenda was stymied after Republicans began using walkout tactics.
“The Republicans are acting like spoiled children,” said Bill Bradbury, a former Democratic secretary of state and legislator. “They have figured out the only way they can stop the legislative process is to deny a quorum. That is totally BS. They are elected to do the people's business. They are not elected to stop the people’s business.”
Bradbury said it would be a “tragedy” if the quorum denial became a routine legislative tactic. He said Republicans need to lose seats to be deterred from doing it again.
“If they gained seats, I think they’d be emboldened,” he said.
Bruce Hanna, a Roseburg Republican, served as co-speaker of the House in a 30-30 party split from during the 2011-2012 session, which is regarded as one of the more productive legislative assemblies in recent times.
“We were able to do things because neither side could take each other way beyond their comfort zone,” he said.
Hanna said that the most recent legislative session went “haywire” because Democrats, with their supermajority, went beyond what the 35-day short session should be used for - budget fixes and narrowly focused legislation.
He said that he’s also observed a change in mindset of legislators. They no longer feel they’re working for the entire state but instead for their district and their party. He said that using a denial of quorum as a tactic is legitimate.
“It’s in the rules. It’s fair play,” he said.
Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, a Democrat, said that as national politics have become more partisan and angrier, state politicians are adopting a similar approach to get what they want.
After the Legislature adjourned earlier this month, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions that was in some ways more stringent and didn’t include the phase-ins and exceptions of the scuttled legislation. Both Hanna and Roberts said that the Legislature has been left out of the discussion.
“It makes the legislative branch weaker and weaker while the judicial branch and the executive get stronger and stronger,” she said.
When John Kitzhaber left the governor’s office in 2003, he was famously quoted saying the state was “ungovernable.”
While there is some context missing that rarely gets provided around this comment — “if” the legislature continued to duck its responsibility to the people to balance the budget, then it could be ungovernable — it’s an appropriate analysis of today’s political climate in Oregon.
But Kitzhaber said he believes Oregon is governable, and, to him, the tone at the top, both in the executive and legislative branch, is extremely important. He said relationships are important for effective politics.
“I think the real question is, why did it get to a point that Republicans felt they needed to (walk out)?” Kitzhaber said. “There was a time in the late 70s and early 80s where there was a really collegial relationship. It was a completely different environment, and understanding what’s going on now, I think we’ve lost that.”
Kitzhaber believes the key missing piece is true relationships being built across the aisle, and not just relationships in terms of working together inside of the Capitol, but really getting to know one another.
“I think it’s really important to explicitly acknowledge we need to park our partisanship at the door,” Kitzhaber said. “When the gavel falls you become Oregonians working on behalf of all Oregonians.”
He points to the friendship he created with then-Senate President Gene Derfler, a Salem Republican. The two would often socialize outside of the context of the Capitol, sometimes simply sharing a drink or going fly fishing.
A former state senator from Roseburg, Kitzhaber also points to the 2011-12 session with the 30-30 split in the House as an example of relationships overcoming partisanship.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be tough,’ Kitzhaber said. “But I reached out to Hanna, gave him my cellphone, and the same with (then Democratic co-speaker Arnie) Roblan. We had these meetings all the time, partly policy, but to mostly get to know each other.”
Roblan, now a state senator from Coos Bay, agreed. He said he moved to the Senate because longer terms allow for stronger connections than in a two-year cycle.
“Perception is reality in almost all these things, and relationships don’t seem to matter as much from across the aisle,” he said. “My Republican friends for years have said we need to limit the power of the executive branch. Now they turn around and hand it all over.”
Hanna said that he doesn’t expect quorum denial to become a regular tactic because one side will figure out how to overcome it. There is currently an effort to amend the state constitution to lower the number of legislators required to conduct business.
Bradbury said that getting over the most recent dustup won’t be easy for Oregon’s political establishment but is possible.
“I’ve certainly seen attitudes change in really quick time,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Democrats' legislative successes before the use of walkouts by Republicans. It has also been updated for the number of seats Democrats would need to pick up in each chamber to overcome walkouts.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.
Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.