OPINION: Republicans must stop saving Democrats from themselves
Oregon Senate Republicans have engaged in four legislative walkouts in less than two years. Democrats and Republicans alike have used quorum denial as a negotiating chip when all else has failed, but this nuclear option should not be used frivolously.
The first Republican walkout in 2019 occurred over a reprisal of the gross receipts tax, deceptively dubbed by Democrats as "the Student Success Act." The proposal completely disregarded the will of Oregonians who killed a similar ballot measure in 2016 by over 350,000 votes. When Republicans said the bill should be decided by Oregonians instead of politicians, Democrats said "no." The first walkout of 2019 ensued.
The bill easily passed the Oregon House, but in the Senate, Democrats could not afford to lose any support — needing all 18 of their members to vote 'yes.' In some cases, common-sense Democrats were threatened with expulsion from committee assignments and other political "punishments."
To get Republicans back, Democrats agreed to kill their own gun safety measures and a vaccine mandate. Democrats then passed the tax hike and denied Oregonians a say.
Republicans had a small "win" by Democrats dropping some of their agenda, at the cost of a tax hike. Senate Democrats did not have the votes to pass the vaccine mandate, as it was very controversial in many of their districts. The gun legislation, including banning pepper spray in public buildings, would have also been massively unpopular and likely challenged in the courts or forced to the ballot.
Had these passed, it would have encouraged Republican turnout in the coming election. In talking with a former Republican leader, who served in the majority, they remarked, "Republicans just saved the Democrats from themselves."
Following the gross receipts tax debacle, Democrats were intent on pushing through a phony climate proposal, known as cap-and-trade. Many who have worked at the Oregon Capitol for years had never seen such opposition to attempts to refer an impactful policy change to voters.
A little less than a decade before, Democrats, with some Republican support, referred tax measures (Measures 66 and 67) to the ballot.
At the time, it was unclear if Democrats would fall short of the 16 votes needed for passage, so Republicans walked. That walkout generated international media attention and gave rise to historic grassroots engagement at the Capitol.
After several days of a standoff, the Senate president announced that cap-and-trade didn't have the votes to pass, and the session concluded over a marathon weekend at the Capitol. Democrats and the governor then blamed Republicans for the failure of their own cap-and-trade climate proposal — they didn't actually have the votes within their own party to pass it.
Cap-and-trade then returned in the 2020 session. Republicans requested to schedule the proposal toward the end of the session to consider immediately pressing legislation. Democrats refused and would not compromise. Senate Republicans, joined by House Republicans, walked and the 2020 session never resumed.
Denying quorum can be a useful, short-term tactic for a minority party, but it is not a strategy, and the long-term consequences are dire. It is blunderous.
After working in Washington, D.C., I was surprised to come home and find the Legislature more destructively polarized than Congress. I am alarmed the politics behind the walkouts are still occurring during a pandemic. It must end.
As Oregonians, it's time to elect new leaders who don't consider compromise a dirty word. Having the longest-serving Senate president and House speaker in state history might sound impressive, but the current reality says otherwise.
Democrats run the show in Salem. It's time for Republicans in Oregon to make a strong case to Oregonians with solutions to improve lives and livelihoods. They need to stop giving Democrats cover. It's time for the party in charge to be held accountable.
Evan Bryan served as a legislative director in the Oregon Senate. He holds a master's degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University. He lives north of Hillsboro.
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