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caption: The Washington Capitol in Olympia.
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The Washington Capitol in Olympia.
Credit: Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

While Oregon’s Legislature feuds, Washington finds a way to work

The two states are both led by strong Democratic majorities and face similar issues. Only one of them is successfully passing legislation.

On Feb. 25, as they have frequently in the past two years, Republicans in the Oregon Senate declined to show up for work.

Catching majority Democrats off guard, the chamber’s 11 Republican members refused to attend a run-of-the-mill floor session that morning, denying a quorum and blocking the chamber from completing its modest agenda.

It was a protest aimed not at any specific legislation, as extended walkouts in 2019 and 2020 had been. Instead, GOP members were protesting the state’s ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. But even with that novelty, it was hard to generate much shock over a tactic that has become commonplace in Salem.

Meanwhile, 160 miles up Interstate 5, a far more collegial scene was playing out.

In Olympia, Washington’s senators showed up to debate (mostly via Zoom) one of the most contentious bills of the session: a proposed ban on the open-carry of firearms and other weapons at the state Capitol and at demonstrations statewide.

Despite vociferous Republican opposition to the bill, there were no walkouts, no efforts to amend the bill to death and no mid-debate blow ups. In fact, the worst that minority Republicans might have been accused of that day was injecting a bit of sarcasm into the debate, such as when Washington Sen. Phil Fortunato noted that guns are already restricted at state psychiatric hospitals.

“So if we simply designate the Capitol grounds as an insane asylum, we achieve what this bill is actually trying to do,” said Fortunato, an avowed gun rights advocate.

The debate was over within an hour.

caption: The Oregon Capitol in Salem.
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The Oregon Capitol in Salem.
Credit: Sergio Olmos / Oregon Public Broadcasting

This contrast in style goes beyond one date in late February. It extends into the day-to-day duties playing out in Salem and Olympia during historic and weighty legislative sessions. And it raises a puzzling question — one that people in the respective state capitols struggle to answer.

Washington and Oregon are both handily controlled by Democrats, contain many of the same persistent concerns over an urban-rural divide, and frequently take up similar legislation. So how is it that one legislature is in a state of perpetual dysfunction, and the other is, by comparison, a model of respectful bipartisanship?

Pressed on that question, politicos and observers in both states conjure a wide range of possibilities, from the temperaments of top politicians to the nuances of state law and legislative rules. Meanwhile, many party leaders in Oregon declined to even discuss the question with a reporter.

But if the reasons are unclear, the outcome isn’t. As delay tactics and disagreement jeopardize action in Salem, Washington’s lawmakers are accomplishing the business for which they were sent to Olympia.

As Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, who presides over the Washington Senate, said in February: “I give members of the Washington state Senate, both political parties, ‘A’ grades for the civil way in which they have undertaken this session.”

Similar issues, different outcomes

On paper, Oregon and Washington’s legislatures have a lot in common. In Oregon, Democrats hold a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers — 18 of 30 seats in the Senate, 37 of 60 seats in the House. That margin allows them to pass any bill without a single Republican vote. The party also controls every statewide office.

In Washington, the Democratic juggernaut — while formidable — is not quite that strong. Democrats hold 57 of the 98 House seats and 28 of the 49 seats in the state Senate. Most bills can pass with a simple majority.

The two neighboring states grapple with the same thorny dynamic: That the urban population centers west of the Cascades often have sharply different political views than the rural expanses east of the mountains (and in a large swath of southern Oregon). The “urban-rural divide” extends to a wide range of policies, from management of natural resources, to gun control, to clean energy proposals, and has been a reliable impediment to Republicans and Democrats finding common ground over the years.

This year, the states have also seen a sharp partisan split in their efforts to address the spread of Covid-19. Democratic governors in both states have enacted strict limitations on business operations, shuttered schools, and taken other steps that Republicans have argued are too strict. Another common point of contention: Republican lawmakers in both states have railed against Democrats for closing off the state capitols in Olympia and Salem to the general public while the legislatures are in session.

But the commonalities between the two states are hardly universal.

The Washington Legislature is in the final month of what’s likely to prove a historic session. Majority Democrats are poised to adopt a long-sought-after, and controversial, new tax aimed at wealthy Washingtonians. A raft of police accountability measures are on a path to final passage, including restrictions on police tactics and creation of a new state office to investigate deadly force incidents.

Also on the table, as part of a decidedly progressive agenda: criminal justice reform measures, a low-carbon fuel standard and, potentially, the creation of a cap-and-trade system that has been political hot lava in Salem.

Oregon, meanwhile, is not currently passing much of anything.

While Democrats in the state have their eyes on many of the same topics as in Washington — gun control, voting rights, police accountability policies, to say nothing of a new two-year budget — those bills’ path toward passage is balanced on a knife’s edge of daily grievances and partisan jockeying.

In years past, repeated Republican walkouts denied Oregon Democrats the quorum they needed to pass legislation similar to the cap-and-trade policy Washington is considering. This year, with that proposal off the table, Republicans in the Oregon House have chosen to waylay Democrats’ entire agenda.

The party has used a constitutional rule to require that all bills be read in full prior to a vote, grinding the gears of governance to a crawl. The delay tactic finally led Democrats to use a computer program to read bills for the first time in state history, its robotic drone sounding through the chamber for hours on end while lawmakers turned their attention elsewhere.

caption: Oregon State Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, listens to testimony Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Drazan, who is House minority leader, has demanded that Democrats shelve any bills her members take issue with.
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Oregon State Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, listens to testimony Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Drazan, who is House minority leader, has demanded that Democrats shelve any bills her members take issue with.
Credit: Bradley W. Parks / Oregon Public Broadcasting

Bill reading has historically been used as leverage to kill off or soften proposals minority Republicans found particularly objectionable. This year, the House Republican Office has declined to offer a list of specific bills it opposes. House Minority Leader Christine Drazan has instead demanded that Democrats shelve any bills her members take issue with, give all Republican amendments consideration and open the Capitol to members of the general public.

“Is this an inconvenience?” Drazan said in a March 9 floor speech. “I’m sorry. You don’t get to control everything. ... We are not here to facilitate the ease of the passage of someone else’s agenda that harms my community and my state long-term.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek has responded to the Republican strategy by scheduling extended floor sessions most evenings in order to meet legislative deadlines, and issuing increasingly strident rebukes of the tactic.

“Be public about which bills you don’t like, and then let’s have a conversation about what the majority of Oregonians would like us to be working on,” she said recently, adding that forcing bill reading was functionally little different than a Republican walkout.

The Oregon Senate — the epicenter of walkouts in recent years — has so far been more collegial. But the chamber’s 11-member Republican caucus showed plainly it’s got the political will to pull another no-show with its Feb. 25 display. Some GOP senators routinely vote no on bills they agree with in protest of the building being closed, and some have refused to show up to floor sessions and committee meetings where controversial bills are being considered.

While some senators and staff say the chamber is in a positive place, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney demurred when asked about how his side of the Capitol is faring.

“No matter how I comment, I run the chance of making things bad that aren’t that bad,” Courtney said. “It’s too dangerous. Every day’s a challenge.”

caption: Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek motions to someone on the House floor April 11, 2019. Kotek issued strident rebukes of Republicans' tactics during the 2021 legislative session.
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Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek motions to someone on the House floor April 11, 2019. Kotek issued strident rebukes of Republicans' tactics during the 2021 legislative session.
Credit: Kaylee Domzalski / Oregon Public Broadcasting

‘There have to be tools’

One obvious part of the difference between the two legislatures comes down to legal nuance.

Oregon’s constitution has a number of provisions that grant the minority party levers to pull that aren’t available to Washington lawmakers who might love to disrupt the process.

The most prominent is a requirement that a two-thirds quorum of lawmakers be present in order to conduct business in either chamber, a higher threshold than the vast majority of states and a provision which allows Republicans to dictate whether any bill passes if they can muster the will not to show up.

Since 2001, the tactic has been used at least seven times in Oregon, nearly always by Republicans. This year, for the first time, the Oregon House has created rules fining lawmakers for denying a quorum.

Washington, by contrast, requires just a simple majority to conduct business. If Republicans don’t show up, majority Democrats are free to continue without them.

Oregon’s Constitution also requires that legislation be read in full before a final vote, a rule that dates back to a time when bills weren’t readily available for lawmakers and the public to view online. The reading requirement has frequently been an afterthought in contemporary lawmaking, with both parties agreeing to waive it — sometimes for entire legislative sessions.

But Republicans began to see new utility in the rule beginning in 2016. Angry over what they saw as abuse by Democratic majorities speeding their bills through the Legislature, GOP leaders began casting about for ways to slow the passage of bills they were largely unable to stop.

caption: Former Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli asked his staff in 2016 to come up with ways to waylay Democratic bills.
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Former Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli asked his staff in 2016 to come up with ways to waylay Democratic bills.
Credit: Casey Minter / Oregon Public Broadcasting

Then-Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferriolli sent word to his staff to look for possibilities, and an aide named Steve Elzinga came up with an idea: Republicans should buck tradition and simply decline to waive the constitutional rule on reading.

“If [the majority is] not going to be bipartisan, there have to be tools to make sure that there is still transparency and the public still has an opportunity to participate,” Elzinga, now an attorney in private practice, said recently. “Bills were moving through with major amendments that were going through at the last second.”

Asked to reflect on how the tactic he spearheaded played out, Elzinga said: “I do not think it resulted in more bipartisanship, which was unfortunate.”

Limits built into the Oregon Constitution for how long legislative sessions can last offer a third tool to minority lawmakers: 160 days during odd numbered years, and 35 days during even years. The limits mean lawmakers are up against a deadline to complete their work in any given year. By employing delay tactics, minority lawmakers can run down the clock.

Washington, too, has hard legislative deadlines. Sessions can stretch no longer than 105 days in odd years and 60 days in even years.

But while the Washington Legislature has, thus far, avoided the sorts of disruptions that have plagued the Oregon Capitol this year, that hasn’t always been the case. The minority party in the Evergreen State does have options for throwing a wrench in the majority’s plans.

In recent decades, there have been dramatic moments in the Washington Senate when the minority party — sometimes Democrats, sometimes Republicans — attempted to force one or more of their bills to the floor by invoking what’s known as the 9th Order of Business. Sometimes the purpose of a 9th Order is to simply make a point and force the majority party to scramble. But if the minority party can peel off a couple of votes from the majority, then it can be employed to temporarily take over control of the Senate.

More recently, in 2018, Washington House Republicans walked off the floor and then — in an unprecedented move — ultimately refused to vote on a homecare worker bill backed by the Service Employees International Union. In the end, the bill passed 50 to 0 with all 48 House Republicans listed as absent.

Just last year, House Republicans killed a gun bill by introducing more than 120 amendments, spurring Democrats to shelve it rather than hold a debate.

A tone of civility

While there are clear differences in how much leverage Republicans can bring to bear in Oregon, a bigger difference between the two states might lie in how included the minority party feels in the process.

Throughout Washington’s 2021 session, there’s been an undercurrent of tension between Democrats and Republicans over the decision by Democrats to hold a mostly remote session. The Capitol building remains closed to the public, because of COVID-19 concerns, and fenced off, because of security concerns.

Despite this push-pull, the two parties have found ways to navigate their differences respectfully. Senate Majority Floor Leader Marko Liias thinks it helps that Senate Democrats remember what it was like when they weren’t in power.

“We’ve tried to really learn from what it was like to serve in the minority and bring those experiences with us to the majority and work collaboratively across the aisle,” Liias said.

To that end, Liias said, he tries to ensure that Republican bills that Democrats agree with don’t languish. He also noted the majority party has the power to close debate in the Senate, but that they try to use that “sparingly.”

Additionally, this year, because of the mostly remote session, the Senate fashioned emergency rules which allow for more advance notice to Republicans about what’s coming up on the floor. Liias said he and his Republican counterpart, state Sen. Shelly Short, also consult weekly. Both also are physically present on the Senate floor during debate, allowing for in-person communication.

While there have been tense moments, Senate Republican Leader John Braun said he agrees that legislative leaders in Washington are making an effort to reach across the aisle, despite tough circumstances and stark differences on issues in the state.

“We are really trying to do things differently here, even when we disagree, that we can work together, build comity, build respect for one another and hopefully, as a result, get better solutions for the people of Washington,” Braun said.

Part of this climate of adversarial respect has roots in the dysfunction of Washington, D.C.

Denny Heck, the Washington lieutenant governor, is a former U.S. representative who retired last year after lamenting the lack of civil discourse in Congress. In his retirement letter, he wrote: “Civility is out. Compromise is out. All or nothing is in.”

Describing a political environment of “personal demonization” in Congress, Heck said his highest priority as the presiding officer of the Washington Senate is to “set a tone of civility.”

“We can disagree with one another, in fact I hope we do, because there’s value in seeing an alternative point of view, but we should always be respectful of one another,” Heck said earlier this year.

Such warm political feeling is practically nonexistent in Oregon’s Capitol.

For years, Republicans have cast the majority Democrats as a members of party bent on ramming its agendas through with little consideration for the minority party or the constituents it represents.

“This session has become a platform for the abuse of power and, frankly, I think more and more people are getting appalled at it,” then-House Minority Leader Mike McLane told reporters in early 2015.

In the years since, Oregon Republicans have twice tried to recall Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, and they have left the state to prevent the passage of legislative business three times. On any given week, Republican lawmakers might issue press releases accusing Democrats of, for instance, abandoning crime victims “to side with rapists, kidnappers, child pornographers and attempted murderers.” Democrats issue their own releases and fire off tweets accusing Republicans of failing to do their jobs and holding up vital legislation.

The tension has been building for years, with each subsequent delay tactic by Republicans and partisan policy success by Democrats adding to the current of bad feeling. In today’s Oregon House, observers say, there is an air of combat. Elected officials come to the state Capitol metaphorically armed for battle, some feel, rather than prepared to work on policy.

Even two years ago, when House Republicans forced bills to be read for a historic amount of time, the dynamic between Kotek and then-House Minority Leader Carl Wilson was better than what exists today.

“I can’t overstress that,” Wilson said recently. “You don’t have to be bosom buddies with your opponent leaders, but nonetheless you can foster a good relationship. … Although they had an overwhelming lead in seats, there were a number of things that didn’t happen as a result of our relationship.”

caption: Former House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, right, says fractured relationships in Salem are a key reason for current dysfunction.
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Former House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, right, says fractured relationships in Salem are a key reason for current dysfunction.
Credit: Bradley W. Parks / Oregon Public Broadcasting

Wilson, who lost his position atop the caucus in a 2019 leadership coup led by Drazan, takes a pragmatic view of the power imbalance in Salem. Democrats have handily defeated Republicans in repeated elections, and so have the power to pass their policies, he says. But pressing that advantage is bound to breed contempt.

“It takes something special in leadership to tell your people, ‘Hey look folks, we’ve got a 38-22 advantage but these other folks at the other side of the aisle have constituencies that look at things differently than we do, so may I ask you to hold back on things that will be directly inflammatory?’” Wilson said. “You’ve got to give people hope at any time they’re at an extreme disadvantage. Losing breeds a bad attitude. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Oregon leaders in both parties aren’t keen on reflecting on the subject of their ongoing strife. The top Republicans in the House and Senate declined or did not respond to requests for interviews for this story. Courtney, the Senate president, was among those who declined.

Republican Drazan has accused Democrats of teeing up an agenda this year “that harms my community and my state long term.” But a spokesman said he could not offer specifics on what bills she is referencing.

Kotek, the only Oregon leader in either party who agreed to answer questions on the subject, has called Drazan’s repeated argument that Republicans aren’t being allowed to have their say “specious.”

“Their version of shut out is: We will suspend reading of the bills if you reopen the building,” she said. “That is not a discussion, that’s an ultimatum. I don’t think that’s safe, and we have not done that yet because it’s not safe to do so.”

A glimmer of hope

But it’s clear there is room for both parties to budge.

In 2019, when House Republicans forced bills to be read for weeks on end, Wilson recalls the situation reaching a tipping point. “Tina [Kotek] finally came to me and said, ‘What do we need to talk about?’” he recalled. “We began to make some progress in the session at that point.”

This year, aides say, Kotek and Drazan have continued to speak regularly. But whether they are having those kinds of hard negotiations behind closed doors is unclear. In public, Kotek and Drazan have exchanged a series of curt letters, each asking the other to back down.

The ongoing conflict has become worrisome enough that Gov. Kate Brown recently convened a meeting of all four legislative leaders, Courtney said. The next morning, April 1, some progress had emerged. Oregon House Republicans agreed to clear the way for a series of priority budget bills, and waive reading on another technical bill, in exchange for Kotek’s pledge to cancel a Friday floor session.

But all else remained the same, and the progress of thousands of bills introduced in Oregon is still far from certain. On Thursday, a computer’s somnolent voice continued reading bills to a largely empty Oregon House chamber.