In Oregon right now, a handful of white people from the far right are holding the state government hostage.
No, it’s not another armed occupation of government buildings, like in 2016. This time it’s a handful of Oregon lawmakers who refuse to enter government buildings, thereby holding the business of the legislature hostage.
It ought to be getting more national attention, if for no other reason than it perfectly encapsulates larger national political trends. It is like a snow globe, a perfect miniature representation of what the Republican Party is becoming.
In a nutshell, Oregon Republicans are exploiting an arcane constitutional provision in order to exert veto power over legislation developed by the Democratic majority, on behalf of an almost entirely white, rural minority. Five times in the past 10 months, they have simply refused to show up for work, preventing the legislature from passing bills on guns, forestry, health care, and budgeting. The fifth walkout, over a climate change bill, is ongoing.
It is an extraordinary escalation of anti-democratic behavior from the right, gone almost completely unnoticed by the national political media. Nevertheless, it is a big deal, worth pausing to consider, not only because it is preventing Oregon from addressing climate change, but because it shows in stark terms where the national GOP is headed.
To begin with, let’s look at what’s enabling these walkouts and trace their history over the last year.
The Oregon GOP has taken up tantrums as routine practice
The Oregon state constitution contains a somewhat quirky provision in Article IV, Section 12, regarding what constitutes a quorum — the minimum number of legislators necessary for the legislature to do its business. Many state constitutions specify a quorum, but most, like Washington to the north, set it at a simple majority. That way, if a minority walks out, the legislature can still do its work.
In Oregon, a quorum is two-thirds of the legislative body — 40 out of 60 representatives or 20 out of 30 senators. Is there some governing rationale for this higher requirement? Not really. It’s just something the fledgling state of Oregon copied from Indiana when it was assembling its constitution.
As of 2018, Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, with 18 out of 30 Senate seats and 38 out of 60 House seats. This needs emphasizing, since much of the media coverage of this story bizarrely omits it: Democrats represent a large majority of Oregon voters. They have much more public support than Republicans in the state.
However, even given their small minority, if every Republican chooses to walk out of the Senate — literally refuses to show up and do their job — they can prevent a quorum, thus preventing any legislative business from being done in the Oregon legislature. (It’s especially effective in even-numbered years, when the session is only 35 days long.)
Of course, either party could have done this at any time in Oregon history when it was in the minority. They just didn’t. It was commonly understood, without needing to be stated, that walking out on the job would be a gross dereliction of duty and an insult to Oregon voters. If both parties made a practice of it, governance in the state would become completely impossible.
But these days, such democratic norms no longer restrain Republicans.
Walkout No. 1
In May of 2019, Oregon Republican Senators walked off the job to prevent the legislature from passing a tax package to fund state schools, staging a four-day boycott of their own jobs. In exchange for returning and voting on the package, they demanded that two other bills with majority support — one with modest gun restrictions and another that would have limited religious exemptions from vaccines — be scrapped.
State Democrats, in the face of state schools being held hostage, caved. To persuade Republicans to come back and do their damn jobs, they agreed to table both bills for the session.
As part of the agreement, Republicans signed a one-page document pledging not to walk out again during the session and to allow work to resume on HB 2020, the carbon cap-and-trade bill.
Walkout No. 2
In June 2019, just as the Oregon legislature was about to pass that cap-and-trade bill, Republicans walked out again, violating the agreement they had signed a month earlier.
In the face of this betrayal, Governor Kate Brown threatened to send state police after the lawmakers, but congressional Democrats mostly simpered. “I’m begging you to come back,” said Senate President Peter Courtney on the Senate floor. “I don’t want to send the state police. I don’t. I don’t.”
None of the Republicans were ever bothered by police, but in response to the threat, GOP state Sen. Brian Boquist said, on camera, addressing himself to state troopers: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed.”
People didn’t have much time to absorb the fact that an elected official had openly threatened the lives of state police, because that weekend, large crowds, including members of Oregon’s far-right militias, began amassing in the capitol. At one point, state police found the many threats from those militias sufficiently alarming to shut down the state capitol for a day. Republicans subsequently mocked Democrats for being afraid.
In the face of lies and intransigence backed by the threat of extralegal violence, Democrats ... caved again. Courtney dragged himself to the Senate floor and announced, to the great surprise of many of the bill’s supporters, that Democrats didn’t have the votes for the bill, so the Republicans could come back. (Environmental groups and bill supporters dispute Courtney’s characterization.)
Republicans thus got everything they wanted, including killing the cap-and-trade bill, with no consequences. Except for Boquist — he can only come to the capitol if he gives state police 12 hours advance notice.
Walkout No. 3
Republicans had learned their lesson. It took only until February 2020 for the first walkout of the new session, when Republicans, en masse, skipped an evening meeting.
What was the problem this time? What issue was so dire as to justify an extraordinary breach of longstanding norms?
Oh, it’s just that Democrats were working everyone too hard, moving a little too fast. “Tonight is really about pacing,” said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan. “The schedule is a little bit grueling.” It seems some of the Republicans had plans that were disrupted by the late-announced meeting.
Drazan promised to continue using walkouts to adjust the pace of the schedule. “We’ll have this conversation again tomorrow,” she said. “What does the floor look like on that day?”
Walkouts Nos. 4 and 5
In January 2020, Oregon Democrats unveiled a new version of their cap-and-trade bill, which reflected intense discussions with minority lawmakers and industry trade groups. It was a heavily compromised version of the already compromised bill that had been ready to pass in 2019.
The new plan would be implemented over three phases, with rural areas affected last. Rural fuels were exempted, along with several industries and new classes of natural gas users. It was a substantial capitulation.
This month, Republican senators walked out again, using rhetoric unchanged from before all the concessions. This time, Courtney immediately ruled out sending state troopers after them. Instead, he redoubled his begging. “I need you. I need you to help my fellow Oregonians — all of us. I need you,” he said plaintively in a radio interview. “Let’s fight other ways. Please come back to Oregon my Oregon.”
Brown was, once again, “extremely disappointed,” as was the Senate majority leader.
A few days ago, Oregon House Republicans, not wanting senators to have all the fun, also walked out, denying that body a quorum.
Meanwhile, a whole host of legislative priorities — including bills on homelessness, wildfire preparedness, and assistance for flood victims — are being held up. Spending on a range of state priorities, from child welfare to psychiatric hospitals to forestry, could be delayed for a year. Also at risk is a historic, years-in-the-making compromise between Oregon’s timber industry and its environmentalists, who have been at war for decades.
A broad coalition of Oregon groups is calling on Republicans to return to work, but for the GOP, only the base matters. Now Oregon groups are working on a set of ballot initiatives that would force them back to work.
Republican process complaints have always been in bad faith
The primary Republican talking point about the cap-and-trade bill, the supposed reason it is so objectionable, is that it has been “crammed down their throat.” They said it in 2019:
And they’re still saying it today. “We think this issue is something that’s being crammed down our throats,” said the owner of a logging company, protesting in the capitol this month. The head of the state Republican Party said the bill was being “rammed through” the legislature.
The claim is demonstrably false. The cap-and-trade bill has been under development in Oregon, in some form or another, for 10 years. Just over the past two years, it has arguably been through a more comprehensive process than any bill in state history.
Here’s a video about the long process and wide array of stakeholders involved in the bill:
Republicans’ objections have been heard and addressed. They just haven’t stopped the bill, and that’s what they want. It was never really about process, it’s about state government doing something they don’t want it to do (pricing carbon) in a state where they believe they ought to have veto power. They believe that rural white people and the kinds of jobs they do are more authentically Oregonian than those of city dwellers working service jobs, and thus they ought to have a greater voice in politics.
“This state was built by the timber industry and by farms, ranchers, construction and other blue collar industries,” said John Hanlin, sheriff for rural Douglas County in southern Oregon, at a protest in 2019. “Not on coffee businesses and marijuana dispensaries.”
Throughout the history of the bill, Democrats have bent over backward to accommodate Republican objections, layering on more and more process, making more and more concessions, but it hasn’t changed Republican rhetoric or behavior a whit. The objections were never made in good faith; they aren’t to the bill’s contents or process, but to its existence.
“The Democrats were just pushing it and pushing it and pushing it,” complained Republican Senate leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., justifying the latest walkout. “We had no other choice.”
But of course there was another choice: to abide by the democratic process. “We must get our way, no matter what” is not a reasonable premise to carry into a dispute in a democracy.
The ludicrous Republican demand for referendum
The second main GOP talking point is that, instead of simply voting the bill through the normal way legislatures do, Democrats should send it to voters as a direct ballot referendum.
It’s clear enough why this would serve Republican purposes. It would kick the can down the road and give them months to access billions of dollars of oil money to crush the referendum, just as oil billions crushed ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado in 2018.
What I don’t understand is why this proposal is being taken seriously, by anyone, for even a second. It is facially absurd. The rules of the democratic process are written down in black and white. Democrats played by them. They campaigned — on cap-and-trade, among other things — and got a large majority of votes. So they are developing a bill and now they’re going to pass it. That’s how democracy works.
Republicans don’t just get to arbitrarily decide, as a defeated minority, how the majority’s bills pass, or what form they take. Their enormous sense of entitlement notwithstanding, they don’t get to rewrite the rules of democracy on the fly as it suits them, from bill to bill.
Oregon Republicans are pocketing gobs of corporate money
To hear Republicans talk, they’re just looking out for the interests of beleaguered yeoman farmers. The money tells a different story.
As this great exposé from the Oregonian’s Rob Davis documents, Oregon has the country’s loosest laws on money in politics, with no restrictions whatsoever on what corporations or individuals can donate to politicians. This has led to a flood of cash into state politics and the steady erosion of the state’s once-proud pollution and environmental laws.
Oregon is now first in the country in per-capita corporate donations to politicians; almost half the total money donated to Oregon legislators comes from corporations, far more than comes from unions or individuals.
As Davis notes, the Republicans who keep walking out on their jobs get 65 percent of their donations from corporations, in particular corporations like Koch Industries with assets that stand to be affected by cap-and-trade.
This is a story about large, resource-intensive corporations buying the support of legislators who then do their bidding under cover of a bunch of distracting culture-war rhetoric about elites vs. just-folks.
No, it’s not both sides
Anyone who acts alarmed about Republican behavior is inevitably reminded that state lawmakers have walked out before.
In 2001, Oregon Democrats walked out of the legislature, and in 2003, Texas Democrats did the same thing. In both cases, they were objecting to efforts by the majority to engage in the kind of gerrymandering that would stitch together future Republican majorities even if they got fewer voters.
In 2011, Wisconsin Democrats walked out; later that year, Indiana Democrats did the same. In both cases, they were objecting to bills being rushed through by small majorities, opposed by most state voters, to permanently cripple unions.
Republicans cite these cases as a defense of their actions. The media, hopelessly ensorcelled by any kind of both-sides story, has dutifully run with it, failing to note the differences in context. So it’s worth pointing out:
- These examples are from almost 10 and almost 20 years ago, respectively.
- Each of them was meant as an extraordinary gesture, to highlight extraordinary circumstances, taken at extraordinary political risk.
- Each episode ended with the majority getting what it wanted after a short delay.
- Oregon Republicans have walked out more times in the past 10 months than all Democrats have in modern history.
There is simply no precedent for what Oregon Republicans are doing, treating walk-outs as routine, using them to prevent passage of what is a fairly milquetoast set of carbon policies (less stringent than in many other states) and even to set the pace of work in the legislature. Democrats have never done anything like this, anywhere.
Calling white supremacy what it is
This is an extraordinary situation. An overwhelmingly white, rural minority of voters is holding an entire state’s business hostage. Oregon Democrats played by the rules, got more votes, and developed legislation through appropriate channels. Now fewer than a dozen lawmakers, heavily funded by the very industries they are defending, are blocking it, at will, using an anachronistic quirk of the state constitution.
There is no conceivable justification for it, no possible democratic rationale. It only makes sense in the context of white supremacy: the notion that rural white Americans are more authentically American than other groups and deserve outsized representation in its politics and veto power over its legislation.
It is no surprise that there are copious ties between the Oregon GOP and the far right. Consider TimberUnity, which passes itself off as a grassroots group of rural Oregonian loggers and truckers against the climate bill. At a January 11 “Vanguards of Victory” awards ceremony, the Oregon GOP gave the group an award.
On February 6, TimberUnity held a rally in the state capitol. The poster advertising it explicitly mirrored the poster for the 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Several members of the white supremacist group the Three Percenters, who also provided security at the Unite the Right rally, were seen in the crowd. Also spotted was the slogan from the far-right conspiracy network Q-Anon — “Where we go one, we go all” (WWG1WWA) — on frequent display, as it typically is at Three Percenter events.
Angela Roman was a Republican legislative staffer and Three Percenter who ended up doing jail time for providing a firearm to a fellow Three Percenter and convicted felon. (She’s running for Congress now.) Here she is posing with Matteo Dagradi of the Proud Boys, a right-wing group that has brawled in the streets of Portland, and making the white nationalist “okay” gesture. That guy photobombing in the background? TimberUnity leader Todd Stoffel.
Since the rally, TimberUnity has been hijacked by more experienced Republican operatives who plan to use it as an ongoing cudgel against Democrats.
It’s all an interconnected network in the state: the far-right groups, the GOP, and the resource industries that fund them. Over and over again, this minority is allowed to assert its will at the expense of its fellow citizens, the norms of conduct that hold state government together, and democracy itself — without consequence or accountability.
It is no coincidence that Oregon is the state where a group of far-right extremists occupied government buildings in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for over a month, armed and explicitly threatening violence. Ammon Bundy, the leader of that criminal occupation, was acquitted of all charges and back to his life within a year.
That makes no sense except against the background assumption of white supremacy. Who else would be allowed to do that and get away with it?
So too in the legislature. Over and over again, a handful of Oregon Republicans have held the state hostage to their demands. Yet the national media seems incapable of calling it what it is.
For example, have a look at this story from the Associated Press. It is positively surreal in its devotion to the exhausted tropes of mainstream political coverage. The debate in Oregon has become “pitched” and the episode “reveals sharp divisions.” Republicans say this, Democrats say that, he says, she says, the end.
Nowhere in the story will the reader be told that Democrats have a supermajority in the legislature. Nowhere will they be told that a small, demographically homogeneous minority is using once-extraordinary measures to routinely thwart the will of the democratically elected majority. Nowhere will they be told that the white minority holding the state hostage has been backed in the past year by the threat of far-right militia violence.
Mainstream political coverage, as we’ve seen again and again in the Trump years, is simply incapable of communicating a sense of crisis. There is only one model of story — what each side says, in equal measure — and it only serves to blur and obscure a situation in which one party, not the other, has lurched in a radically anti-democratic direction. (The local coverage from outlets like OPB is much better.)
Meanwhile, Democrats in state government wring their hands and cave to Republican demands again and again, as though it is simply a matter of course that a large majority must bend the knee to a small minority.
A recent poll showed that the Oregon public favors political accountability for the legislators walking off their jobs, but there is never accountability for tantrum-throwing white men who take government hostage. It’s not just that the law won’t punish them. They won’t even be held reputationally or rhetorically accountable. Their opponents in the Democratic Party won’t call it white supremacy. The media won’t. So they get away with it, again and again, and keep escalating.
Oregon Republicans are national Republicans in miniature
The situation facing the Oregon GOP mirrors the one facing the GOP at the national level; every chapter of the story above mirrors a national chapter.
In national US politics, as in Oregon, it’s increasingly clear that the population is urbanizing and diversifying and there simply aren’t enough rural and suburban white Christians to constitute a majority anymore. If that demographic — which has now become an intense, all-encompassing political identity — is to maintain its traditional hold on power, it can only do so through increasingly anti-democratic means.
In Oregon, that means exploiting the quorum rule and unlimited corporate money. At the national level, it means exploiting rural overrepresentation in the Senate, the electoral college, voter suppression, the filibuster ... and unlimited corporate money.
In national politics, as in Oregon, anti-democratic tactics and rhetoric are escalating on the right, but there is little pushback or accountability. They pay no penalty for lying, violating norms, or taking legislative hostages, so they keep doing it, keep escalating. The institutions around them seem unwilling or unable to draw lines in the sand, and when they do, as when Democrats impeached Trump, they find those lines blown aside by partisan unity.
Republicans learn again and again that if they stick together, they can get away with anything — stolen elections, misbegotten wars, botched disaster responses, recessions, and now an openly criminal president. As long as they are a unified “side,” media and other institutions will treat them as a legitimate side, no matter what they do.
Oregon still has a chance to reject — or at least contain — white supremacy. Hopefully it does a better job than the country of which it is a part.