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Voters will have final say on GOP walkouts

Democrats are understandably frustrated with minority Republicans for walking out of the Legislature to deny the quorum required to conduct business. Republicans are understandably frustrated with what they consider heavy-handed pandemic restrictions imposed by Gov. Kate Brown, and their answer was to walk out last month and demand the governor immediately open schools full-time.

“Throughout the pandemic, the Legislature has abdicated too much responsibility to the governor,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod said in a written statement. “We cannot sit by and watch the governor fail to deliver on the biggest issues facing Oregonians today.”

They didn’t get what they wanted. The governor has since ordered schools to prepare to reopen to full-time in-person instruction, but on her timetable, not Senate Republicans’.

Republicans can decide to boycott any session, any time and for any reason, effectively blocking any legislation they don’t like, even though they don’t have the votes to stop it.

The Republicans have the law on their side. The Oregon Constitution requires that two-thirds of each chamber in the Legislature must be present to introduce and vote on bills. Only three other states set the bar that high; the other 46 require only a simple majority.

In practice, this session, that means Democrats need two Republican senators to show up to conduct business. In the House, they need three members. If they all stay away — or all but one — nothing can happen.

In nearly every other state, the minority party does what it can to amend or argue against bills it doesn’t like, or tries to convince majority-party colleagues to vote no, then takes its lumps and sees those bills pass anyway.

Republicans point to times in past when Democrats were in the minority and used walkouts to block legislation. That’s true, and it wasn’t right when the Democrats did it, either. The last time Democrats staged a walkout was 20 years ago, at the end of a session, to block an end run by majority Republicans who wanted to pass their preferred redistricting plan but prevent a veto by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Democrats’ walkout caused the Republicans to miss a constitutional deadline for redistricting, throwing the task to Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.

Republican lawmakers generally have the support of their Republican constituents in their majority-Republican districts, so they needn’t worry about voter backlash next election. The problem they face is that there are far more majority-Democratic districts in the state, because there are more Democrats. Statewide, there are fewer registered Republicans than Democrats, and non-affiliated voters outnumber Republicans as well.

That means the only weapon the GOP has is to walk out and block all action in Salem. That includes action to hold them accountable for walking out. Republicans stayed away from a Rules Committee hearing last week that considered measures to fine absent lawmakers, or to prevent them from running for office in the future if they engage in boycotts.

So GOP lawmakers can prevent their colleagues from punishing them for boycotts. But they can’t prevent the voters from doing so.

The Oregon Constitution can be amended only by a vote of the people. The Legislature can refer proposed amendments to the voters. Republicans could block those referrals by walking out, but the voters can place amendments on the ballot themselves by collecting enough signatures on initiative petitions.

That effort is already underway. Initiative petitions have been filed in hopes of placing amendments on the 2022 ballot to fine lawmakers who boycott, and to bar any member who boycotts 10 or more floor sessions from running for reelection. A measure to change the quorum requirement likely will be filed as well.

In the end, the voters will have the final say. And that is as it should be.