Oregon Senate Republicans, like Texas House Democrats, left their state during the Legislative Assembly’s session to prevent lawmakers from acting on certain bills, but that’s where the similarities end.
The Republicans didn’t take chartered jets or stay in ritzy hotels in the nation’s capital, but Democrats widely scorned their 2019 and 2020 legislative walkouts. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee even told the Oregon Republicans to stay out of his state.
The Texas House Democratic Caucus members were hailed on the left as heroes when they broke quorum July 12 by fleeing to the nation’s capital. Oregon Republicans have noticed the contrast.
“Given how vocal Oregon Democrats have been about prior quorum denials, their silence so far about what is happening in Texas has been deafening,” Oregon Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod said in a statement. “They have previously called walkouts threats to democracy and even likened them to ‘terrorism.’ Are they willing to apply the same standard to Texas Democrats, or are they partisan hypocrites?”
The Texas Democrats have sought to block the Republican-controlled House from passing an elections bill. Although Oregon Republicans may disagree on the issues, they have staunchly defended the rights of minority caucuses to stage holdouts.
“As Republicans, we continue to believe that quorum denials are a rare but legitimate tool for holding a runaway government accountable,” Mr. Girod said.
Only four states require legislative chambers to have two-thirds of members present before conducting business. Oregon Republicans have used the provision at least three times in recent years to fight cap-and-trade carbon emissions legislation and an increase in K-12 spending.
Senate Republicans held a one-day walkout in February to protest the extension of Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic order. Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, a Democrat, said the Republicans “continue to sabotage Oregon’s democracy and undermine the will of voters.”
Like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Ms. Brown ordered the state police in 2019 to bring back the wayward state legislators, although they struck deals to return without being arrested.
As Senate majority leader, Ginny Burdick accused Republicans in 2020 of a “subversion of democracy.” In 2019, Oregon Democrats distributed “wanted” posters for the 11 Senate Republicans who fled.
“I don’t know what to call it,” Ms. Burdick told reporters in June 2019, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I want to call it terrorism because they are not doing their job, and it has fractured the entire institution.”
Ms. Brown called it “absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents who they are honor-bound to represent here.”
She has not echoed that sentiment with the Texas Democrats. Her office said in a statement that the Texas and Oregon situations are “fundamentally different,” given that the Texas Democrats fled to stop what they call a voter-suppression measure. Republicans reject that description.
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. That’s what is at stake in Texas,” the Oregon governor’s office said. “In Oregon, Republicans have regularly subverted our legislative process by using walkouts leading up to deadlines and the constitutional end of session as a strategy to control what legislation moves forward, and halt progress on a variety of issues including climate action and education funding.”
The Republicans succeeded in deflecting the cap-and-trade bills in 2019 and 2020, although Ms. Brown ultimately imposed many of the provisions via executive order.
The departure of the Senate Republicans was considerably less glamorous than that of the Texas Democrats, who scored a visit with Vice President Kamala Harris a day after arriving on a private jet at Washington Dulles International Airport.
The Democrats have reportedly been staying at the Washington Plaza Hotel. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People and other groups are raising money for their expenses, which are estimated to hit $1.5 million by the end of the special session on Aug. 6.
Oregon state Sen. Kim Thatcher said she drove herself to neighboring Idaho.
“I initially drove to Washington state, until Gov. Jay Inslee, then a presidential candidate, stated none of us Senate Republicans were welcome there and indicated he would send law enforcement to find us,” Ms. Thatcher said in an email. “I then drove to Idaho, being extra careful to never exceed the speed limit.”
Changing the rules
Because of the Oregon Republicans’ penchant for walkouts, Democrats and far-left groups are trying to increase the costs for runaway legislators.
A Democratic-backed group called No More Costly Walkouts is collecting signatures for 2022 ballot initiatives that would fine the runaway legislators $500 per day, eliminate their salaries and per diem reimbursements, and bar those with 10 or more unexcused absences from seeking reelection.
“When lawmakers take an oath of office, they promise to show up for Oregonians each and every day. If they can’t do that on their own, we will change the rules so they have to,” Reed Scott-Schwalbach, vice president of the Oregon Education Association, said in a May 6 statement.
The group filed another eight petitions in May to change the quorum requirement from two-thirds to a simple majority.
“There must be accountability in Salem for walking off the job or stopping others from doing their jobs,” said Andrea Kennedy-Smith, a chief petitioner for the No More Costly Walkouts campaign. “If I didn’t show up to work or if I made it impossible for other people to do their jobs, I would lose my job.”
Some of the campaign’s partners, however, have expressed support for the Texas Democrats.
Ms. Kennedy-Smith serves as Local 503 vice president of the Service Employees International Union, a member of the Oregon anti-walkout coalition, even though SEIU Texas is sponsoring a “voting rights roundtable” this week with the renegade Texas Democrats in Washington.
Also backing the Oregon effort to make runaway lawmakers pay is the Planned Parenthood Action PAC of Oregon, although Planned Parenthood Texas Votes has cheered the runaway Democrats, including their women’s health caucus, for absconding from the state.
“Thank you to our amazing Planned Parenthood champions in the @TXHouseWHC for making personal sacrifices by leaving the state to defend voting rights and, as a result, are successfully stalling further attacks on abortion access, and other progressive causes,” Planned Parenthood Texas Votes said in a Twitter post.
Donors to No More Costly Walkouts include the Kate Brown Committee and the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund based in Portland, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s campaign website.
The danger for Oregon Democrats is that they may not control the state legislature forever.
“Quorum rules are the last tool available to promote bipartisan cooperation, whether we agree or disagree with the policy being protested,” said Oregon Senate Republican Caucus spokesperson Dru Draper. “Much like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, majorities need to be careful about blowing up quorum rules. The shoe may eventually be on the other foot.”