Commentary

A ban against legislative walkouts would put Oregon in line with most other states

Measure 113 which will be on the Nov. 8 ballot would punish lawmakers who don’t show up in Salem

October 12, 2022 5:45 am

Measure 113 essentially bans long walkouts by minority lawmakers in Salem. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The initiative on guns has gotten more attention, though still less advertising than some advocates might have expected, but Measure 113 on legislative attendance deserves at least as much.

Attention so far has been sparse. What could sound duller than a change in rules concerning the number of unexcused absences from the Legislature a member can have? Are we going to have them punch a clock?

But in a time of legislative walkouts, it does matter. Measure 113  would add this to the state Constitution’s provision on the Legislature: “Failure to attend, without permission or excuse, 10 or more legislative floor sessions called to transact business during a regular or special legislative session shall be deemed disorderly behavior and shall disqualify the member from holding office as a senator or representative for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.”

Excused absences, often for illness or emergency reasons, are not rare in legislatures, but usually they’re handed out only for a commonly understood personal necessity. The point of the new initiative is to impose a serious penalty to keep a minority in either chamber from walking away from the statehouse, to deny the Senate the 20 or the House the 40 present members needed to conduct business. 

In Oregon, along with just a few other states (most famously Texas), each chamber of the Legislature cannot conduct business unless two-thirds of its members are present. Most states, including Washington, Idaho and California, require only a simple majority. So does Congress, as do most local government legislative bodies, including commissions and councils, and many others.

The current Oregon rule means that a third of a chamber can keep it from doing almost anything. It is genuinely an aberration.

Whenever a minority, since majorities don’t need the tactic, has fewer than half but more than a third of the members of a legislative body, they can bring the business of the state to a halt. 

The whole idea of “quorum-busting”  has a very long history going back centuries. While serving in the Illinois Legislature in 1840, then dominated by the opposing Democratic Party, Abraham Lincoln jumped out of a ground floor window in a temporary legislative quarters in a church to try to stop a quorum vote concerning the state bank. His attempt at stopping the vote failed. There’s some evidence, in fact, that Lincoln may have done the same thing again later, and failing once again. 

Oregon’s current legislative Republicans, finding themselves with unpalatable choices on climate change and other topics, report themselves in a similar position, with a walkout being the biggest weapon available. Of the eight noteworthy state legislative walkouts across the country in this century, including in Texas, Indiana and Wisconsin, Oregon has been the site of four, in 2021, 2020 and 2019 – though the first of those was done by Democrats when they were in the minority. 

Oregon legislators have considered from time to time moving the quorum requirement to simple majority. The most recent effort came after the 2019 legislative walkout, then-Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick said she would push in the next year’s session for a constitutional amendment to set a quorum at a simple majority. But despite another walkout in that year’s session, energy for pressing for the change seemed to dissipate. 

Measure 113’s advocates, mainly in the labor community, approached the question in a different way: Stay out for a while if you want to make a point, but hold up the state’s business for more than 10 days and you’ll pay a serious political price. 

At the moment, the political-partisan implications are unavoidable: Passage of the amendment would remove from legislative Republicans the biggest weapon available. 

Political impacts aside, does it seem reasonable to do this? 

On its face, maybe so – at least, many people are likely to accept the initiative’s logic that if you want a job enough to campaign for it, you should at least show up for work. Carlton, the Oregon city where I live, has expelled council members on the basis of unexcused absences. 

Polling seems to say it will succeed in November, and there hasn’t been much pushback against it. (How exactly would you structure the campaign argument against requiring public workers to appear at their workplace?)  A research memo from early in 2020 showed support for the amendment at about two to one, and an argument based on the idea that you shouldn’t have the job if you don’t show up to work may have traction. 

Depending on what the numbers in each Oregon chamber look like after the November election, the atmosphere in the next session could be a lot different.

 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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