The 2020 legislative session hasn’t even started but Senate Republicans seem ready to call it dead.
With the Democratic majority aiming to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill over Republicans’ objections, Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., has hinted his caucus could stage a walkout, denying Democrats the necessary quorum to conduct business. It’s not an idle threat, based on past experience: He and his fellow Senate Republicans fled the Capitol for multiple days last year – twice – over a new business tax and a previous version of the cap-and-trade legislation, securing concessions and shutting down legislation in exchange for their return. With Republicans far outnumbered in the Senate, exploiting a procedural safeguard now appears to be their go-to-strategy for gaining leverage when they otherwise have none.
Unfortunately, Baertschiger seemed to up the ante even more, suggesting that Republicans might not show up for the 35-day session at all. “The Democrats have gone nuts,” the Grants Pass Republican recently told Willamette Week. “I’m thinking my caucus doesn’t even show up and we get national attention for how crazy the Democrats are.”
Perhaps. In today’s hyperpolarized climate, it’s likely that people with zero connection to Oregon will cheer – and jeer – such a move. But instead of fantasizing how their walkout might play in a few national outlets, Republicans should instead look closer to home and consider how it would affect Oregonians, specifically those they represent. Because their constituents, most of whom live in rural areas where concerns and needs are vastly different from urban Oregon, desperately need their legislators to be advocates, not showboats. While walking off the job may temporarily delay Democrats’ agenda, it burns goodwill, hampers progress on shared goals and may ultimately doom Republicans once the rules of the game change. Already, efforts are underway to rewrite quorum requirements which Democratic lawmakers hope to put in front of voters as soon as November.
Certainly, cap-and-trade is not just any legislation. Senate Bill 1530 would enact a cap on statewide carbon dioxide emissions that would lower over time. It would require power producers, fuel distributors and industrial polluters and others to buy increasingly expensive allowances for the pollution they emit, pressuring them over time to seek cleaner alternatives, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Ted Sickinger wrote. But legislators also added in concessions from last year that are aimed at easing costs borne by rural Oregonians, who have few alternatives to driving and whose economies are more dependent on such industrial polluters. For example, the new bill specifically grants an allowance for emissions on motor vehicle fuel delivered to rural communities, a provision meant to shield residents in those regions from the expected costs that urban Oregonians will pay.
The bill, which has been in the works for years, still needs a full vetting in Salem. But this shows why Republican legislators’ voices are needed at the Capitol. They have pointed out that bill would strangely exempt swaths of information from public records law and questioned the feasibility of fuel suppliers differentiating the price they charge between rural and urban communities. These are valid questions on which Democrats must genuinely collaborate to resolve. But they won’t get resolved without Republicans directly engaging in the debate.
Republicans have argued that the bill should be referred to Oregonians, so that they can be the ultimate judge. There are strong arguments on either side of this issue. Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, inartfully but correctly notes that cap-and-trade is a dauntingly complex issue in her argument that legislators should not send it to voters. SB 1530 is 86 pages of intricate policy attempting to balance the interests of power providers, high-polluter companies, statewide consumers, rural residents and others with the overall goal of lowering Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. We ask and expect our legislators to do the research, craft legislative policy and make tough decisions on behalf of Oregonians, particularly when there are so many competing interests. Submitting complex policy to voters seems an abdication of the basic role of a legislator.
At the same time, Burdick and most of the Democratic majority last year pushed through a bill that kneecapped Oregonians’ own ability to refer legislation to the ballot. Among other things, the new law makes it harder and more expensive for individuals to submit signatures supporting a referendum or initiative petition. This bill, passed over the objections of all Republicans and four Democratic House representatives, never should have made it out of Burdick’s committee. If Democrats want any high ground in the debate over referring cap-and-trade to voters, they should repeal this disenfranchising law and leave it to Oregonians to decide whether it’s something they want to refer or not.
Oregonians expect their elected senators and representatives to do the work of legislating, even when they’re not in the majority. That means using data to demonstrate the potential impacts of a bill; persuasion in encouraging others to consider their point of view; and negotiation to craft compromises where they can. That requires having relationships built on trust – with Democrats and Republicans doing their part. Just as Republicans shouldn’t threaten to go home if they don’t get their way, Democrats shouldn’t smugly rely on the power of their supermajority to force through policy, regardless of who is hurt.
Ultimately, Republicans need to recognize that a walkout isn’t a strategy for anything. It’s an admission of powerlessness – an acknowledgement that your side has utterly failed to summon the support, the argument or the ingenuity to persuade the other side to budge. Instead of building toward something, Republicans are giving Democrats and their allies ammunition to persuade voters to endorse changing quorum rules to require only a simple majority, as most other states’ legislatures do, or to flip two Senate seats in competitive districts and give Democrats a quorum-proof majority.
But what should be more worrisome is the message Republicans are sending their own constituents. Telling voters that they are more effective staying home than going to Salem is a not a winning message. If that’s the case, they should consider staying home for good and letting someone else take their place.
— The Oregonian