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Oregon’s Democrat Governor Decried GOP Tactic She Once Used Herself

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David Benkof Contributor
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In the just-ended standoff in Oregon, were bad-boy Republicans once again refusing to play by the rules?

That’s how Democrats and much of the media portrayed the conflict between Democrats in Oregon and the GOP legislators who fled to deny the state senate a quorum.

But though rare, walkouts are a widely recognized tool for blocking legislation in extreme cases. In recent years, the legislators walking out have mostly been Democrats, and Republicans have responded by compromising and occasionally capitulating. That’s what happened in reverse on Tuesday, as Democrats abandoned the bill in question.

In a massive irony, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had found herself arguing against the position she held on the tactic in 2001 when she and two dozen other Democrats fled to Warm Springs Indian Reservation in a spat with Republicans over a redistricting plan. (RELATED: Republican Oregon State Senators Flee The State To Avoid Vote. The Governor Sends State Police To Find Them)

The 2019 dispute revolved around a cap-and-trade bill which would require businesses in every sector of the Beaver State’s economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Widely considered the most extreme statewide climate change law outside California, Republicans said the bill would devastate rural communities and harm important state industries like farming, logging, and dairy.

Unlike several states and the U.S. Congress that require a simple majority for a quorum, Oregon legislators cannot pass a bill without two-thirds in attendance. The state senate has 30 members, but only 18 are Democrats, so unless at least two had returned to the chamber, the environmental bill could not have passed.

Much of the public ado about about the standoff related to Republican resistance to the idea of being hauled back to the chamber. Most vividly, State Sen. Brian Boquist told the state troopers to “send bachelors and come heavily armed. I am not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”

That statement was portrayed as a threat of violence, but state troopers were also threatening violence. (They were not coming to arrest him with lollipops.)

Governor Brown lambasted her GOP opponents, saying in a press release that they had “decided to abandon their duty to serve their constituents.” She called for the Oregon State Police “to bring back their colleagues to finish the work they committed to push forward for Oregonians.”

That’s a far cry from her stance 18 years ago, when she defended her caucus’s flight as “very appropriate.” She then boasted that “we would use all tools available to us” to block a legislative redistricting plan unfavorable to her caucus.

And indeed, stopping a quorum is an available if radical tool for achieving legislative goals. The designers of Oregon’s legislative system could have required a simple majority to pass legislation, and after the earlier standoff in Oregon the system could have been changed. In fact, had Governor Brown switched positions between using a walkout and decrying a walkout, she had ample opportunity to try to change the minimum required to pass legislation. There is no evidence she did so.

Indeed, the 2001 delaying tactic by Brown and her Democratic colleagues (two of whom are still in the legislature) was spectacularly effective. Because the lack of a quorum stymied the Republican legislature from passing a redistricting plan, Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury drew the district lines. His plan was infamously punitive; in one case he moved a representative’s home a stone’s throw away from his district, thus locking him out of re-election.

In a similar short-lived standoff in 2007, state troopers were sent to a baseball game at Oregon State University to haul back two AWOL legislators. A very public to-do was avoided only when the Republican leader decided to attend the vote and allow a quorum. (RELATED: Oregon GOP Lawmakers Stay On The Lam)

That’s not unusual for quorum standoffs nationwide. In the last two decades, it has usually been Democrats leaving the state and Republicans either compromising or capitulating:

In a noted 2003 battle over redistricting, the “Texas Eleven” Democratic state senators fled to to Oklahoma; the battle only ended when one of them was convinced to return.

In a 2011 battle over collective bargaining for public employees, 14 Wisconsin Democrats left the state. At the time, any bill with a financial provision required a quorum, and Republicans had 19 of the needed 20 legislators but were unable to convince a 20th to return to the state.

The conflict became a nationally celebrated battle royale. Republicans tried a variety of means large and small to coax the Democrats to return. They tried (and failed) to pass a law Democrats despised (voter ID) but could not do so because of a federally required financial provision. They tried to take away Democratic access to copy machines; to end direct deposit so the legislators would have to pick up their pay in person; and to simply fine them $100 a day.

Ultimately the collective-bargaining law was passed without the financial element, and Democrats returned.

Another example of the effective use of the tactic was in Indiana in the same year. Democrats were strongly opposed to a right-to-work law barring union contracts that required every employee to join the union. The Indiana walkout was unusual in that the demands of the absent legislators grew as the standoff extended. They ultimately tried to block twelve Republican bills, and returned after the GOP agreed to table three of them, including the right-to-work provision.

During the six-week standoff, absent Democrats were fined $3,500 each, but nobody was hauled back to Indianapolis in handcuffs.

At the end of Tennessee’s legislative session last month, Republicans locked the doors to keep Democrats from walking out to block a quorum over a health-care block grant.

Also earlier this year, Texas Democrats staged a walkout to deny Republicans a quorum over a “born-alive” abortion bill. That standoff ended when Republicans brought back a member of their party who had been missing earlier.

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