Statehouse stalemate? After three walkouts, Oregon rethinks the rules.

Why We Wrote This

National faith in democracy appears to be on the wane, amid the U.S.’s deep polarization. What about state legislatures? After three walkouts, Oregon is reckoning with how to disagree while keeping democracy running.

Andrew Selsky/AP/File
Lawmakers convene at the Oregon Senate in Salem on June 29, 2019, after the minority Republicans ended a walkout over a carbon-emissions bill they said would harm their rural constituents. After two walkouts that year, and one more in 2020, Democrats say they will ask voters to change quorum rules.

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Once upon a time, Oregon was a model of bipartisanship. State lawmakers agreed to overhaul health care, balance budgets, and reform public education. The two-year period was “among the most productive in Oregon’s history,” Governing Magazine wrote in 2012.

Hard to believe, perhaps, that was less than a decade ago. In the past year, Oregon Republicans have staged three walkouts, and the legislature’s 2020 session ended earlier this month after passing just three of the 258 bills introduced. 

Analysts suggest the scorched-earth tactic could deepen cynicism about the legislature at a time of slumping national confidence in democracy. The question before Oregon lawmakers and voters alike is whether they can agree to disagree yet still resolve gridlock.

Oregon’s shift to the left in recent years leaves Republicans with few options to stop legislation they oppose. At the same time, party leaders admitted to misgivings after their most recent boycott in February. Legislators have offered several proposals to untie the walkout knot.

“I do really, really, really worry people are going to use this every time they don’t get their way,” Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters. “This is not a good way to run a state.”

America’s polarized politics can feel so all-consuming that even recent episodes of unity seem as distant as the Bronze Age. Way back in 2011, Democrats and Republicans in Oregon’s House of Representatives held an equal number of seats as a new legislative session began. The 30-30 split led the parties to elect co-speakers, and over the next two years, the chamber bustled with cooperation.

The bipartisan spirit yielded an overhaul of the state’s health care system, major reforms to public education, and balanced budgets. Lawmakers agreed to redraw the state’s congressional districts for the first time in a half century. Their willingness to work together resulted in a legislative period that Governing Magazine in 2012 described as “among the most productive in Oregon’s history.”

“It was the best session,” says Kim Thatcher, a Republican who was then in her fifth term in the House. “We still had our differences, but we worked on issues that built toward common good, common goals.”

Such comity appears extinct less than a decade later. Last month, Ms. Thatcher, now a state senator, joined her Republican colleagues in both chambers in boycotting this year’s session to prevent Democrats from advancing a climate initiative to cap greenhouse gas emissions. The 35-day term ended in early March with a grand total of three bills passed out of 258 introduced – a period that surely ranks among the least productive in state history.

The walkout by Republicans marked their third in less than a year and the second intended to torpedo a climate measure. Political analysts suggest the scorched-earth tactic, while achieving its purpose, could deepen public cynicism about the legislature at a time of slumping national confidence in democracy. The exigent question before Oregon lawmakers and voters alike is whether they can agree to disagree on policies yet still resolve statehouse gridlock.

“Our political system depends on a willingness to compromise,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri and an expert on state legislatures. “When that disappears, nothing gets done and nobody’s happy, and ultimately, that can damage trust in the institution.”

A ploy with “enormous risk”

Oregon is one of four states that requires the presence of more than a simple majority of lawmakers to convene the legislature. The state’s constitution defines a quorum as two-thirds of House or Senate members. Democrats own a supermajority in both chambers but fall two seats shy of that threshold in each one.

The imbalance of power – a reflection of Oregon’s shift to the left in recent years – leaves Republicans with few options to stop legislation they oppose. At the same time, the decision to walk out in February foiled their own agenda, and in the session’s aftermath, party leaders admitted to misgivings about the ploy.

“I do really, really, really worry people are going to use this every time they don’t get their way,” Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters. “This is not a good way to run a state.”

Both parties have staged walkouts in Oregon since the mid-1990s, and lawmakers in Indiana and Wisconsin have resorted to similar protests in the past decade. Compared with previous boycotts in Oregon and elsewhere, this year’s action went further with its almost complete scuttling of the legislative agenda.

The bipartisan support that existed for various bills – including more funding for wildfire preparedness and a sweeping plan to improve forest management – vanished with Republican legislators who fled the state. The full cost of that all-or-nothing approach could come due at the polls this fall.

Democratic lawmakers in Indiana walked out in 2011 to stymie Republican efforts to pass a controversial labor bill and other measures. They returned more than a month later after Republicans tabled the labor proposal. But the next year lingering memories of the boycott contributed to Democrats losing nine seats in the House.

Senator Baertschiger has announced he will not seek reelection, sparing him potential backlash from voters. His fellow statehouse Republicans could face a wider reckoning in November, asserts John Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“Walking out carries enormous risk,” says Mr. Farmer, a Republican and former attorney general of New Jersey. “Because once you walk out, you not only frustrate the will of the supermajority in the legislature but the majority of the state’s constituents.”

On the other hand, he adds, there remains a chance that voters will instead punish Democrats for again pushing the climate initiative this year given the likelihood of another Republican walkout. The failed gamble deprived the majority party of a chance to pursue high-priority initiatives to ease the state’s homelessness crisis and shortage of affordable housing.

As Mr. Farmer says, “Voters could be thinking, ‘We gave you a supermajority and you still couldn’t accomplish what we wanted you to do. We’re going to throw you out.’ ”

Andrew Selsky/AP
Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick speaks to reporters on March 5, 2020, as fellow Democratic lawmakers look on. Democratic lawmakers said representative democracy is at stake by Republicans' repeated use of walkouts to deny a quorum and freeze all legislation. Later in the day, the 2020 legislative session ended early over the impasse.

Finding a solution

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responded to the fruitless legislative session with an executive order last week that establishes strict guidelines for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Democratic governor’s edict contains many of the elements included in the thwarted climate bill opposed by timber, trucking, and agriculture interests, and Republican lawmakers predict industry groups will sue to block state agencies from enacting the order.

Whatever legal battles loom, after three legislative walkouts in less than a year, public support for finding a solution to avert future boycotts appears on the rise.

“There’s been some frustration at what’s gone on,” says Jim Moore, director of political outreach at the McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University near Portland. “When a session ends with only three bills passed, people notice.”

Democratic lawmakers have discussed a pair of resolutions to amend the state constitution that could untie the walkout knot. One would lower the minimum number of members needed for a quorum from two-thirds to a simple majority. If passed, the measure would go before voters, who would decide whether to bring Oregon in line with nearly every other state.

Another proposal would retain the two-thirds threshold while changing the calendar restrictions on legislative sessions.

The state constitution limits terms to 35 calendar days in even-numbered years and 160 in odd-numbered years. The “calendar days” proviso enables the minority party to, in effect, run out the session clock by staying away from the statehouse. The resolution would deter walkouts by stopping the clock on days when a quorum fails to gather.

The appeal of either proposal to voters remains unclear as fallout from the boycotts recedes behind concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. “People already have short memories,” Mr. Moore says, “and even more so now.”

In January, state Senator Thatcher, the longtime Republican legislator who has launched a campaign for secretary of state, proposed a resolution to abolish the 35-day sessions outright.

The party’s boycott ensured the measure’s demise. Nonetheless, recalling those long-ago days of 2011 and 2012, Ms. Thatcher favors a return to a time of more collaboration, less brinkmanship.

“If we’re going to keep having short sessions, they should be used only for policy tweaks, budget tweaks, emergency issues. Save the big, heavy policy debates for the longer sessions,” she says. Then another possibility occurs to her. “Or maybe voters can bring back more balance to the legislature.”

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