When it comes to unfolding train wrecks, the best advice is to watch it happen from a safe distance.
That must be how it has felt for many of us watching the partisan political standoff take place at Oregon’s Capitol over the past week.
To summarize, negotiations between the majority Democrats in the Senate and their minority Republican counterparts either broke down or were never fully engaged in good faith from the beginning. The sticking point is over legislation that would invoke some of the most sweeping environmental legislation in state history — House Bill 2020.
The legislation puts the state to work clamping down on carbon emissions, a move critics say would harm Oregonians and hurt key industries.
The bill, which is being pushed by environmental and conservation interests, already successfully passed the House along strictly party lines, and was expected to easily pass the Senate — again on strict partisan lines.
But for the second time this legislative session, citing a lack of input or negotiation in the bill’s final reading, the 11 remaining GOP senators staged a walkout, thus preventing the legislation from coming to a vote. Republicans, representing largely rural and agricultural-based districts, apparently feel marginalized from the process.
By law, the Senate must have 20 members present to create a quorum. Without Republicans, the upper chamber remains two short and has not been able to conduct any business since the walkout.
Events have followed a fairly predictable and unfortunate pattern of brinksmanship.
Heeding a request by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, Gov. Kate Brown has authorized the state police, whose jurisdiction ends at the state border, to locate the absent senators and return them to the Capitol building.
It was a moot point, however, as GOP senators had all apparently sought refuge outside the state, and therefore beyond the reach of Oregon authorities.
But the craziness was only beginning.
Outspoken conservative Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, poured gasoline on the fire by telling media that any state police officer seeking to detain him better be a bachelor and come armed.
Courtney threatened to levy a $500 per day fine for each senator who failed to show up.
Based on what state police claim was a credible threat from an armed militia group that is apparently sympathetic to the Republican senators’ cause, Saturday’s legislative session was cancelled outright. Although no armed individuals or groups were spotted at the Capitol over the weekend, there was apparently a sparse crowd of sign-waving and peaceful protesters.
Adding more fuel to this volatile mix are rumors and misinformation being peddled through social media, partisan media outlets, and even out-of-state politicians seeking to spin the events in Oregon for political advantage.
One group of Democratic supporters has even issued Old West-style “Wanted” posters with photos of each of the 11 missing Republicans. National media organizations like the New York Times have even picked up the story. It is a black eye and an embarrassment for the state.
A lot of political fingers are being pointed and wide-sweeping proclamations made about how the Republicans have damaged the political system with their walkout. Yet, we should not forget the Republican tactic isn’t a new one. It was a method used by Democrats in the early 2000s. At the time, Democrats in the state House staged a walkout to protest efforts by the then-majority House Republicans to redraw Oregon’s legislative districts. The Associated Press quoted then-Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown in 2001 calling the actions of House Democrats “very appropriate under the circumstances.”
So, when will the train wreck end, and who is brave enough to try and stop it?
The governor needs to take the lead in getting things back on track.
As the state’s chief executive, Brown could begin right now to diffuse the standoff by publicly withdrawing her order for the state police to locate and escort GOP senators back to Salem. Perhaps enough pressure is relieved that both sides can begin earnest negotiations to settle the breach.
It is doubtful that Republicans can ultimately stop the bill from coming to its ultimate vote, but we must also remember that many other pieces of important legislation, including the state budget, are being held up.
Under the state Constitution, Oregon lawmakers face a midnight deadline on June 30 to finish the session.
Time is running out. We call upon the governor to now be a leader for all of Oregon, rise above partisan politics, and take the important first step toward cleaning up the train wreck in Salem.