A majority of states have the right to compel lawmakers to turn up for work

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 113 to try to force lawmakers to turn up for work. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon voters sent a clear message when an overwhelming majority passed Measure 113 in 2022 to dissuade lawmakers from staging walkouts over divisive legislation: Regardless of party affiliation, legislators should go to work and do their jobs — just like the rest of us. And those who choose not to should face consequences — just like the rest of us.

Now, Senate Republicans have chosen to obstruct the legislative session by refusing to go to work and, under Measure 113, could lose their seats next term if they continue to undercut our democratic process. Added to the state constitution, it states that any lawmaker with 10 unexcused absences can not run in the next election.

A series of the same tactics by Republicans in 2019 and 2020 brought the state government to a halt. While their main issue was with a bill aimed at addressing climate change, their intentional absence from the Legislature impacted hundreds of other bills meant to solve a wide range of challenges in our state, from funding for schools to investments in affordable housing. 

Measure 113 gave voters an opportunity to impose reasonable parameters and consequences for this behavior, in an effort to prevent the devastating impacts of such obstructionism by legislators on Oregon communities. Voters in 34 of 36 counties passed the measure, telling lawmakers that they are expected to show up and do the work of the people. This is now codified in our constitution as Article IV Section 15.

This time, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said Republicans are again targeting a handful of bills, including legislation that would protect and expand access to abortion and gender-affirming care, and a bill that would raise the age limit to buy and own semi-automatic firearms from 18 to 21. Oregonians may be wondering what could happen next.

We’re hopeful that the three-day pause on Senate floor sessions is a sign that talks between legislative leaders are headed in a productive direction. But remarks made by Republicans in the media suggest they may be considering a challenge to the constitutionality of the law in court. 

Sound legal analysis reveals that such a challenge would be yet another waste of the public’s time and resources. A state’s power to require legislator attendance is long-standing and central to our democracy’s functioning. Legislators who choose to be intentionally absent without permission or excuse have no fundamental constitutional right to run for office, and states have every rational reason to make sure that they show up for work. The Oregon constitution, like the constitutions of the United States and the majority of states, allows the government to “compel” the attendance of legislators. These constitutional safeguards ensure that democracy works for us all, and isn’t hijacked by a minority intent on abusing its power.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that claims of free speech cannot undermine these democratic safeguards. Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan expressly rejected the notion that the First Amendment gives legislators the right to use government mechanics to convey a message. The First Amendment is designed to support debate on controversial issues, not prevent it. The legislators who swore to uphold the constitution deny democracy to all Oregonians by not showing up for work. This abandonment is very different from expressing their dissent in the Legislature, while doing their job, which they have every right to do.

It’s important to emphasize that while Republican senators seek legal loopholes to avoid consequences for refusing to show up to their jobs, this option is not available to everyday Oregonians. If the work of debating and passing policies and setting the state budget does not resume, our communities will suffer the impacts.

The values represented in House Bill 2002 that would shore up abortion rights and gender-affirming care and SJR 33, which would protect same-gender marriage, are broadly supported in our state. Oregonians believe that we should be able to control our own bodies and futures, without discrimination or political interference. 

Likewise, most Oregonians, including those who are gun owners, support common-sense regulations that prevent gun violence. They made this clear when they passed Measure 114 last year. The Senate Republicans are obstructing policies that align with Oregonians’ values, and they’re prioritizing their extreme personal beliefs over voters’ voices.

Aside from these specific policies, there’s so much more work to be done this session, from funding key government responsibilities such as public education, to protecting renters from eviction and homelessness. 

Oregonians depend on legislators to do their jobs. This political game-playing must end now.

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Sandy Chung
Sandy Chung

Sandy Chung is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, or ACLU.

Kelly Simon
Kelly Simon

Kelly Simon is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, or ACLU.