early and often

Oregon Republicans’ Self-Destructive Culture-War Walkout

“Get back to work” protesters tell Oregon Republicans. Photo: Amanda Loman/AP

Politicians are often told they need to stand up for their principles. But in state legislatures, sometimes the most dramatic way to take a stand is to walk out. Lawmakers from both parties — typically in situations where they are totally outgunned and want to accuse legislative majorities of abusing their power — have resorted to walkouts that make it impossible to meet quorum requirements for doing business. Most famously, in 2021, Texas’s House Democrats fled not only the state capitol building but the state itself to thwart (temporarily) a Republican voter-suppression law, going so far as to reassemble in Washington to receive pledges of solidarity from congressional Democrats and legislators from other states.

But nowhere has the boycott tactic been pursued more rigorously than among Oregon’s beleaguered Republicans, who used it five times since 2019 (once over education funding, once over redistricting, twice over cap-and-trade legislation, and once to oppose gubernatorial COVID-19 policies) prior to the current legislative session. So frustrated have Oregon’s dominant Democrats become that last year they pushed (and voters overwhelmingly approved) a ballot initiative amending the constitution to bar legislators with ten unexcused absences from occupying a legislative seat after the next election.

So when Senate Republicans again walked out on May 3, they knew they were defying public antipathy toward legislative boycotts and risking disqualification from serving another term. It hasn’t mattered. Their minority leader, Tim Knopp, says they’ll stay away until June 25, the last day of the legislative session, returning to enable passage of “bipartisan” legislation like the budget and bills governing routine matters. (Democrats say if necessary they’ll adjourn the legislature early to thwart this gambit).

What are the concerns that have made Oregon Republicans not only willing to shirk their duty and spit at public opinion but risk their own careers? Knopp calls it an “unlawful, uncompromising, and unconstitutional” agenda that Democrats are pursuing. By that he means bills to impose new gun restrictions (notably raising the legal purchasing age for some firearms from 18 to 21), to protect abortion rights, and to ensure access to gender-affirming medical care. In other words, in progressive Oregon as in deep-red regions of the country, Republicans are going to the mats over their party base’s culture-war preoccupations.

Yes, the boycotting senators are pledging to challenge the new law penalizing truant legislators in court. But it’s a bad look for them in any case.

While public opinion may be somewhat blurry on gender-affirming medical care, there’s no question the gun and abortion laws Oregon Democrats are trying to enact are very popular in Oregon, as they are in all but the most conservative states. So in a very real sense, the GOP there is choosing the most extreme obstructive tools available to minority political factions in order to ensure they remain in the minority perpetually. It’s not a formula for personal or collective success for the boycotters.

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Oregon Republicans’ Self-Destructive Culture-War Walkout