Boycott: The bipartisan history of quorum denials in Oregon

Boycott: The bipartisan history of quorum denials in Oregon

Oregon Senate Republicans staged a coordinated walkout yesterday as they denied a quorum for a 5 pm Senate Floor session. I’m here to provide some historical context to this rarely employed political maneuver.

The Oregon Senate and House of Representatives require that 2/3 of members must be present for the respective bodies to conduct business. That’s 20 out of 30 total Senators and 40 out of 60 Representatives.

Denial of a quorum is typically a tool of last resort for a powerless minority. It is not often employed except in situations such as the one we now find ourselves. The minority is mostly powerless to stop or even amend legislation being advanced by the majority. Denying a quorum is not new to politics in Oregon. There’s a very high profile case from 15 years ago where circumstances were reversed.

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In 2001, the Oregon State Legislature was controlled by Republicans. Specifically, the House had 32 Republicans, 27 Democrats, and 1 Independent. The sitting governor was none other than the infamous John Kitzhaber, who was part way through his second term after being re-elected in 1998. It was late June, and the legislature was in the middle of redistricting; A process when the legislature redraws district lines every ten years to realign the districts with population based on numbers from the Federal census.

House Republicans and Gov. Kitzhaber were unable to agree on how to draw district lines and time was running out. Kitzhaber threatened to veto any Republican map he didn’t like. The Oregon Constitution mandated that if lines were not drawn by June 30 of a redistricting year, the Secretary of State is then given authority to draw the maps (See Article IV of the Oregon Constitution). Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, was ready, willing, and able to draw a map that Republicans hated. The GOP decided to make a long shot attempt in to enact a Republican plan. Instead of passing redistricting through a House or Senate bill that must be signed by the governor, they wrote a Joint Resolution to enact redistricting. A House (or Senate) Joint Resolution only requires the approval of both the House and Senate to be valid (both were under Republican control in 2001). Democrats threatened to go to court, but Republicans were out of options.

Enter Oregon House Democrat who — in protest of the Republican maneuver they considered to be illegal—left the Capitol and returned to their districts. They were absent a total of five days before they returned and eventually voted on a GOP redistricting plan. Eventually, Bradbury got to draw the maps. The rest is interesting, but not particularly relevant to the current topic.

It is important to note that several recent Democratic lawmakers participated in or supported the same 2001 quorum denial strategy now being employed by Senate Republicans. They are:

  • Senate Minority Leader Kate Brown (current Governor)

  • Representative Phil Barnhart (former State Representative)

  • Representative Alan Bates (former State Senator)

  • Representative Richard Devlin (former State Senator)

  • Representative Mark Hass (current State Senator)

  • Representative Laurie Monnes Anderson (former State Senator)

  • Representative Diane Rosenbaum (former State Senator)

Here are two significant quotes Democrats provided to the press in 2001:

Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, called the House Democrats’ actions “very appropriate under the circumstances.”

“Under certain circumstances, it’s fair to say we would use all tools available to us, and stage a similar boycott,” she said. 
— Associated Press, June 25, 2001
The stalemate, he said “is a little frustrating for me” and “isn’t what I signed up for.” But he added that the Democratic walkout made a point about preserving the minority’s voting rights, which Democrats think may be compromised by the Republican redistricting plan.

“I don’t think,” Hass said, “standing up for fairness and protecting the constitution is something we need to hide from.” 
—  Rep. Mark Hass to The Oregonian, June 28, 2001

The history is clear: a number of recent Senate Democrats, and Oregon’s current Governor, either participated in or supported denial of a quorum in 2001. Whatever you think about the maneuver, in Oregon it’s a bipartisan one.

Note: Many news articles about the 2001 redistricting process in Oregon—including the ones I cited—can be found at FairVote. Information about the current and past process of redistricting, as well as the Oregon case law on redistricting, can be found at All About Redistricting. I wasn't observing the legislature directly in 2001 however this is the most fair and accurate representation of the facts I can establish. If you have more information or a correction please let me know.

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