Considered: Hostage Governance

Oregon Republicans are a national embarrassment. Their current strategy is not just to take their ball and go home, but to take it and go on the run from the law. However, Democrats’ tepid, squeamish responses to Republicans’ increasingly outrageous behavior, including threats of lethal violence against the state’s police officers, only makes them seem equally foolish. 

“Send Bachelors And Come Heavily Armed”
At the time of writing, Oregon’s Republican Senators have been out of the Capitol for a week. Their members are rumored to be hiding out in four different states. The latest walkout was to protest House Bill 2020, which would create a statewide carbon cap and trade program, a market-based solution to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions based on a policy adopted by the George H.W. Bush administration in the early 1990s. Oregon would have been the second state after California to adopt a statewide version of this program.

Not only did they flee the state, but Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) threatened violence against any Oregon State Police sent to retrieve him.

“This is what I told [OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton]: send bachelors and come heavily armed,” Boquist told reporters. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”

The Three Percenters, a national militia group known for their involvement in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff in 2016, publicly offered “security” and “refuge” to the missing Senators. Oregon GOP officials said the Senators are “not accepting” their offer, but said nothing about being openly cheered on by a group that the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center classify as an “extremist anti-government” organization.

On Tuesday, June 25, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) surprised many of his colleagues by announcing that HB 2020 “didn’t have the votes,” and begged his Republican colleagues to return and vote on the large backlog of bills before the scheduled end of the legislative session on June 30. At the time of writing, Republicans show no signs of allowing anything to happen in Salem until after the end of the session. They seem intent on making the most of a proven tactic, one that continues to earn further support with their base.

Republicans’ threats of violence and flight from the state until their demands are met might seem extreme to those not familiar with the recent history of the state legislature. But anyone with a close eye on Oregon politics should have seen this coming.

Effective Tactics
Democrats proposed a $2 billion education bill in April. Republicans opposed it, saying new spending should be put toward the $25 billion Public Employees Retirement System debt. Republican Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. (Grants Pass) was “appalled” when Democrats scheduled the vote on education funding to coincide with statewide walkouts by teachers asking for more funding in early May. So Baertschiger did what anyone who believes themselves deserving of the moral high ground would do – copied the tactics he just criticized and walked out.

Just as with the June walkout, the departure of all 11 Republicans in May denied the Senate a “quorum,” the minimum number of members needed to do business. After three days, Governor Kate Brown (D), House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) began closed-door negotiations. 

Though Republicans offered nothing more than their willingness to stop abdicating their duties as representatives of the people, Democrats cut half of the education bill’s funding and tossed legislation on gun control and mandatory vaccination. Despite the education bill being designed to help school districts deal with rising PERS costs, Democrats also promised to introduce “significant” PERS reforms before the end of the session. Reporting in June revealed documents that showed Republicans made one promise during these negotiations: not to stage any further walkouts or delays.

However, having just learned how effective this tactic could be, they continued to obstruct any and all legislation throughout May. Republicans in the House invoked arcane rules forcing every new bill to be read aloud on the floor. The clerk of the House read at least 85 bills out loud, a total of 461 pages. The legislature was forced to take up night and weekend sessions to try and finish their agenda.

Kotek and Courtney followed through on promised PERS reforms in early June, and the bill shattered their own caucus. It required public employees to contribute from their income to a general fund for pension benefits for the first time, effectively cutting overall benefits. After failing  in the House 29-31, Kotek convinced two Democrats to change their votes, barely passing it. The Oregon Education Association, the teachers’ union who had organized their own walkouts in favor of education funding, were angry and disappointed. 

The funding for the education bill, which Democratic politicians heralded as a “generational” achievement, comes from a new tax on businesses. Republicans and business lobbyists are successfully exempting entire industries from this tax, and pushing both it and the PERS reforms to a statewide ballot, which will delay decisions on both measures until at least next year.

Republican leaders insist that their “superminority” status, meaning how few Senate seats they hold, makes this kind of action necessary. Even though they couldn’t persuade voters, win elections, or form coalitions to pass legislation, they still believe uncompromisingly in their ideology. So they arrested the business of Oregon’s government until their demands were met, which they were. This is not how hostage negotiations usually work. 

The New Normal
Republicans’ unabashed self-righteousness and strategic shamelessness was evident in 2009, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his party’s first priority would not be to stem the massive economic damage from the mortgage crisis, but to deny President Barack Obama a second term. And much like President Obama, rather than truly recognizing that the modern Republican party operates out of a bottomless pit of bad faith, senior Oregon Democrats continue to pride themselves on achieving a fraction of what they wanted.

What was gained by Democratic leaders so quickly offering concessions? Republicans’ fiscal argument about prioritizing PERS isn’t unreasonable, but the education bill already had PERS costs in mind. When bills on comprehensive gun control and mandatory vaccinations came up on the chopping block, it should have been abundantly clear that Republicans’ interest was not fiscal, but ideological. 

What did Democrats expect after rewarding Republicans’ hostile behavior? Both the business class and working class voters in the Republican party are showering these Senators with praise and money for acting in this dangerously immature manner. What reason did they have to believe Republicans would keep to polite agreements? It was just as clear from Democrats’ response that their interest was in preventing public conflict rather than standing their ground on issues they told voters they believed in.

What is the value of compromise when those who Democrats call “colleagues” are willing to shut down the government simply because they can?  What is the value of keeping up the pretense of being “colleagues” with those who would more likely refer to you as “opponents” or “enemies”?

The Advocate contacted Corvallis’ elected officials in May for their thoughts on the obstruction. We asked why they believed Democratic leaders like Kotek and Courtney were willing to offer concessions when Republicans were effectively taking the state government hostage, and if they would characterize Republicans’ actions differently. Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) did not respond to our request. Sen. Sara Gelser eventually responded, only to ask us to call her office for comment. 

The Value of Compromise
In many ways, Oregon is a microcosm of national politics. Republicans realized it is effective to bend the rules right up to their breaking point, and strategically easier to prevent any Democratic achievements rather than craft arguments in favor or their own policies. Democrats responded with the polite obliviousness that seems to compel their entire party to behave as though we are living through a time of politics as usual.

A majority of Oregonians voted for Democrats and, it is reasonable to assume, for a Democratic agenda. The major achievements from that agenda so far are cuts to public benefits and half of an education bill. Oregon Democratic politicians dissatisfied with these outcomes face the same choice the party does across the country: Do they continue to respond to petty mudslinging by wiping their faces clean with a smile, believing they are taking the high road above Republicans? Or do they become more uncompromising themselves as a means of expressing the strength of their convictions, even if it means adopting some of the tactics they appear to disdain? 

Whatever the answers, the current status quo is a state government unable to get through even a single legislative session without major abdications of political norms in favor of partisan gamesmanship. It is not a state that can be maintained for long without risking problems that spill out of the opinion pages and into the lives of the people living in this state.

By Ian MacRonald