Author’s note: This is a longer version of an Oregonian op-ed from July 21.
American voters, thinkers, media outlets, our policy partners, and we at Sightline have been saying for years that broken institutions of democracy block progress on all the things we care about. In June, the Oregon senate showed just how true that is. By fleeing the state to prevent a quorum, a tiny number of senators were able to block several important laws, including a climate bill more than a decade in the making. They were willing—even emboldened—to jam a stick into the spokes of Oregon’s entire democracy, hurling voters flat on the pavement. It’s time to take equally bold action to keep the wheels of democracy turning.
In case you weren’t following along, here’s a summary: Democrats won a super-majority in both state houses in 2018 and proceeded to work on the agenda voters elected them to pass. In May, a minority of senators refused to show up for work over a new business tax—if 11 senators out of 30 are not present, the senate doesn’t have a quorum and can’t pass bills. Governor Kate Brown surrendered and took two bills the Republicans opposed off the table, one implementing gun restrictions and one narrowing vaccination exemptions, to coax the minority senators back to the Capitol.
The ploy worked so well that a few weeks later the minority senators decided to do it again to block the Clean Energy Jobs Bill. Eleven Republican senators fled to hiding spots across state borders.
The jobs bill had been in the works for more than a decade; a robust, diverse coalition was pushing for it, and 2019 was its year. It passed the House. It had the votes to pass the Senate. Governor Kate Brown was ready to sign it into law. But after a few days of senators hiding out in Idaho and other undisclosed locations, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney admitted defeat, declaring that the climate action bill no longer had the votes, and he begged the rogue senators to return to work.
Republican senators finally came back to work on Saturday, June 29 and before the close of the session at midnight on Sunday, the legislature passed a raft of bills with bipartisan support, including the first-in-the-nation state-wide Housing Affordability bill and the country’s most generous Paid Family Leave Act.
Why it happened
We could easily take this moment to point a finger at the 11 Republican senators. But really, they are just pawns in a bigger game. Oregon’s senators are plagued by a dynamic that we see at play across the United States: hyperpartisanship—the tendency to place party allegiance above everything else. That includes eschewing norms and traditions that hold communities together, the chance to advance legislation that will help one’s own constituents, and even the opportunity to pass your own legislation.
In some sense, the system required Republican senators to do it: if a tactic is legal and effective, the internal dynamic of hyperpartisanship impels it. If partisan electeds don’t weaponize every opportunity at their disposal, they could face a primary challenge by someone who will. If they work across party lines to pass common-sense laws, they could lose campaign money coming from ideologically driven funders who care about party purity more than about solving problems through lawmaking, or they could get on the wrong side of corporate donors peddling political influence to protect their own interests.
In this case, the Oregonian’s analysis shows that the state’s senators who walked out are funded primarily by corporate interests.
This is yet another illustration that our institutions of democracy can’t hold themselves up. When lawmakers are willing to undermine democracy to win a partisan fight, democracy breaks down shockingly fast.
The state house and state senate are just two groups of representatives, elected by the same people and reviewing the same bills. Twice. What a waste!
What’s to stop a handful of senators from walking out any time they don’t like the majority’s policies? What could change the dynamic from one of corporate, cash-driven hyperpartisanship to one of people-driven policymaking? Here are five things voters could demand.
1. Eliminate the state senate
The United States Senate is hugely undemocratic and its flaws are difficult to eliminate because it is enshrined in the Constitution. But reformers could eliminate state senates, perhaps starting with Oregon’s. Voters can amend the Oregon Constitution with a majority vote on a ballot initiative, so they could simply eliminate the clause creating a senate. Almost a century ago, Nebraska got rid of its senate and has been efficiently passing laws with a single house ever since. All Canadian provinces use a single elected legislature, having shed the dead weight of two legislative bodies decades ago.
Think about it—what is a state senate for? The United States Senate was originally created as an elitist counterbalance to the House of the People. Regular voters couldn’t be trusted to elect reasonable representatives, the thinking went, so the Founders created a second house, appointed by state legislators to block things the people might have wanted but the elites did not. States mimicked the two-house system, but now the state house and state senate are just two groups of representatives, elected by the same people and reviewing the same bills. Twice. What a waste! And it gives rise to the opportunity for the type of mischief these 11 Oregon senators got up to.
Oregon could eliminate the state senate and keep the house at 60 representatives to save some money. Or it could expand the house to something closer to 90 members (the current number of state representatives and senators combined), allowing for smaller districts. Legislative sessions would be more efficient with only one body to shape and vote on each bill.
2. Remove rogue representatives
Oregon fined the senators $500 for each day of unexcused absence. The absent senators didn’t flinch because they can pay the fines with campaign cash, most of which was provided by corporate donors.
How about removing them from their seats after, say, four days of unexcused absences? For the rest of the session, the number of senators would be reduced by the removed seats. The state constitution defines a quorum as two-thirds of each house so if, say, ten senators walked out for more than four days, they would be removed from their seats and the senate would have just 20 senators and 14 senators would make a quorum. The number of unexcused days of absence could decrease in the last four days of the session, to ensure senators couldn’t block action in the final few days.
3. Mitigate money in politics
It’s probably not a coincidence that hyperpartisanship came to a boil in Oregon, one of just a handful of states with no campaign contribution limits. Most Americans realize that elections are soaked in dirty money, but in Oregon, a single donor can give an unlimited amount. Indeed, one donor has given as much as $2.5 million to a single candidate. Giant checks from special interest donors can obligate lawmakers to be more responsive to the check-writer than to voters.
In 2020, Oregon voters will have the chance to approve a constitutional amendment to allow campaign contribution limits. Overwhelming super-majorities of voters in both Portland and Multnomah County voted in recent years for ballot initiatives to impose contribution limits in local elections. Those initiatives, as well as state bills on contribution limits, might be blocked by the Oregon Supreme Court’s 1997 decision to ban all contribution limits in the state. The constitutional amendment will allow the already-passed as well as future contribution limits to take effect. Add democracy vouchers to the mix, and Oregon could see elected officials who are dedicated to voters instead of wealthy donors. Lawmakers who are focused on their voters are less likely to blow up the whole system by walking out.
4. Adopt proportional representation
Proportional representation, a voting system widely used throughout the world, defangs hyperpartisanship. It can eliminate party primaries, separate partisan interests from geographical interests, generate more innovative and consensus-oriented lawmaking, encourage more positive and substantive campaigns, and loosen big money’s grip on elections.
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“Safe” districts, where a party or candidate has overwhelming support, and party primaries drive hyperpartisanship through the threat of getting “primaried.” If a district is safe, that candidate is worried that a more partisan challenger will push him out during the party primary—he’s not worried about winning over the average voter in the November election. He also doesn’t want to be too cooperative with colleagues on the other side of the aisle during the legislative session in case a primary opponent will question his purity and dedication to the partisan cause. But you cannot be “primaried” if there is no primary.
Proportional representation systems, in which candidates or parties win seats in proportion to the votes people cast for them, can eliminate primaries by letting all voters pick their top candidates during one election. If Oregon senators were more worried about serving their average voter than about catering to the most extreme interests in their district, they might not resort to hyperpartisan extremes like walking out.
Proportional representation separates party from geography. In the American two-party system, created by single-member districts, Democrats generally represent urban districts and Republicans typically represent rural districts. In Oregon, this meant lawmakers who championed the Clean Energy Jobs Bill were Democrats from more urban areas while Republicans from rural areas opposed it. But nearly half of rural Oregonians support action on climate change, while only a quarter of Oregon Republicans do. Proportional representation would open the door for those clean energy supporting rural voters to elect a Republican who can represent both the rural perspective and desire for climate action to the policy-making discussion in Salem.
Proportional representation allows more than two parties to compete for voters’ support. Multi-party systems allow for mixing and matching of policy issues to reach majority support through different alliances. There’s also more opportunity for minority voices to play a productive role in the conversation. For example, a three-winner district in eastern Oregon might elect one Republican, one Libertarian, and one moderate Democrat. Voters would no longer get indefinitely shut out, without a representative who shares their views. This diverse three-member delegation might sit on different sides of the aisle, but they would all represent the same constituents, giving them reasons to work together. This would lead to more innovative and consensus-oriented lawmaking. Proportional representation forces lawmakers to work together so bills have broader support because most lawmakers had a hand in shaping the final policy.
Illinois used multi-winner districts for a century, and former legislators there can attest to its benefits. Jeff Ladd, former Illinois constitutional convention delegate, said in 2015 that multi-winner districts reduced partisanship.
“It resulted in a much less partisan legislative body, one that was much more open to dealing with members on the other side based on the strength of ideas, rather than the party relationship.”
John Porter, an Illinois Republican who served in both the state house and US Congress, agreed.
“(Multi-winner districts) led to a much more independent and cooperative body that was not divided along party lines… it allowed individual legislators to pursue the ideas that they had for improving government apart from party considerations and to work with members on both sides of the aisle.”
Proportional elections encourage more positive and substantive campaigns. When candidates don’t spend campaign season insulting the other party, they might be in a better mindset to work with colleagues across the aisle once the session starts.
Because proportional systems enable multiple parties and elect a diversity of candidates who more closely reflect the voters, big donors are less important. With more parties, voters discontented with one party can turn to another. Candidates need less money to campaign for a share of votes than they do for single-winner races, so money isn’t as powerful a factor in choosing winners and losers. (Here are two examples of how voters could implement proportional representation in Oregon.)
5. Use citizen assemblies to solve sticky policy issues.
Some problems—climate change, for instance—desperately need to be solved, but lawmakers can’t agree on solutions or else they keep kicking the can down the road. For issues like these, states could make use of Citizen Assemblies—groups of regular people selected to represent the full geographic and socio-economic diversity of the state. The group of regular citizens meets and has access to witness testimony and other information to help them learn about and evaluate the tricky issue, and has professional facilitators to help them have productive conversations about the topic. They then formulate a common-sense solution that the majority of them can get behind.
Oregon could build on its experience with the Citizen Initiative Review and choose one urgent but sticky issue each year and assign it to a Citizen Assembly instead of the legislature. This would both ensure that the issue gets addressed in a timely fashion because the Citizen Assembly could focus just on that issue until they find and implement a workable solution, and it would free legislators up to pass other bills, especially bipartisan bills, instead of throwing fits and leaving the state.
It’s time to act on democracy and climate
Many Oregonians are wondering if state senators can get away with walking away. Right now, it seems like they can. Eleven senators succeeded in killing the long-awaited climate bill, and only got a slap on the wrist. Arguably, their partisan grandstanding paid off among base voters and corporate supporters. If Oregonians let this stand it could set a dangerous precedent. Walkouts could become the new norm any time a bill comes up that corporate donors don’t like. Lawmakers could bring the Clean Energy Jobs Bill up for a vote again in 2020, and senators could just walk out again. We are already desperately late on cutting climate pollution. We cannot afford more years of political posturing.
Oregonians can take one or more of the five actions above to improve the way the state’s democracy functions for climate, and everything else that voters care about and corporate funders don’t want.