With summer fast approaching, Oregon once again does not have a functional state legislature. 

The Republican Senate caucus has walked out over objections to bills on abortion rights, transgender rights, and gun safety, and while negotiations to bring the Republicans back are ongoing, the legislative session remains imperiled with less than two weeks to go before it’s set to end. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Last November, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 113—a constitutional amendment that disqualifies state legislators from running for re-election if they accrue 10 unexcused absences from floor sessions without permission or excuse. 

The bill’s proponents and voters believed the measure would be enough to keep the legislature functioning after years of Republican walkouts. 

Instead, Republicans walked out again—arguing that the constitutional amendment as written will allow them to run for re-election even if they do miss 10 or more sessions. They’ve hired a high-powered Portland attorney to argue their case.

Now, the majority of legislative Democrats are pushing for another option to address the walkout paradigm. As of Wednesday, 40 Democrats have signed onto a House resolution co-sponsored by Reps. Khanh Pham of Portland and David Gomberg of Otis, to ask voters to change the state’s quorum requirement from two-thirds to a simple majority. 

To some observers, a change in quorum requirements is long overdue. 

Oregon is currently one of only five states in the country that requires more than a simple majority of its state legislators to be present for a quorum. Of the other 45 states, 44 require the presence of just half of the legislators plus one—meaning that if one party has a majority, they only need their party members to show up to keep the legislature running. The other state, Massachusetts, doesn’t even require a majority of legislators to be present. 

That’s why walkouts are not a viable tactic for minority state legislative caucuses in the vast majority of U.S. states—why the legislative dysfunction Oregon is dealing with is not widespread despite similar polarization in state legislatures across the country. 

In the last decade, all of the notable state legislative walkouts have happened in states that require more than a simple majority of lawmakers to be present to conduct all legislative business. 

The majority of those walkouts have come in Oregon. Though Democrats themselves staged a walkout in 2001 over the state’s redistricting process, Republicans in recent years have turned the walkout into a routine legislative practice. 

In 2019, Republican senators walked out over a cap-and-trade proposal. The next year, they bolted over a proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021, they briefly walked out in frustration over Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 public health policies. This year, they’ve staged the longest walkout in state history. 

Measure 113 was overwhelmingly supported by major unions and Democratic lawmakers to stop the practice, and faced virtually no organized opposition—which is likely one of the reasons why it won a majority in every county in the state but two. 

But it was a roundabout way to address a very straightforward problem. Why didn’t the state’s Democratic machinery introduce a ballot measure to change the quorum requirements? The Oregon Capitol Chronicle reported that it was, in part, a political calculation: that Measure 113 polled better than other options to end the routine use of walkouts.

Courtney Graham, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 503, said the measure was drafted in direct response to voter frustration over walkouts.

“At the time we were focused on qualifying Measure 113 for the ballot, that was kind of the voter frustration that we were really trying to meet,” Graham said. “We had to meet that moment, and at the time, I think it was the right decision based on what we knew about how frustrated voters were with walkout after walkout after walkout.” 

Sure enough, Measure 113 passed easily. But as Sen. Daniel Bonham, a Republican from The Dalles pointed out last month in comments reported by OPB, it isn’t necessarily a solution to the walkout problem at all.  

“It didn’t change the quorum requirement,” Bonham said. “If that was the move they had made, to change the quorum to [a simple majority], that would have cured this issue.”

Some Democrats are attempting to make that move now, some seven months after the passage of Measure 113, but it might be a while before the resolution to change the quorum requirement gets a vote: no Republicans have signed onto the resolution and neither, to this point, have the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. 

The resolution’s sponsors acknowledged at a press conference Wednesday in Salem their proposal has virtually no chance of passing during the current legislative session. They suggested that they could try to bring it up again at next year’s short session or get it on the ballot in 2024, where it would likely face opposition from Republicans and conservative-aligned interests in a way that Measure 113 did not.

But Democrats might be left with little choice if they’re serious about enacting the entirety of an agenda that a majority of Oregonians have repeatedly voted to support over the last decade. 

Even if the party’s leadership is able to reach an agreement to bring Republicans back to the Senate chamber and proceed with this year’s session in the coming days, it will likely come at a cost to their constituents. 

Democrats are reportedly considering eliminating portions of their abortion access bill to expand access at universities and in rural parts of the state and are considering removing language ensuring that a person of any age can receive abortion care without parental consent. 

They are also reportedly considering killing a bill to enshrine the right to abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender-affirming care in the state constitution—a step other Democratic-controlled states have taken in recent months—and significantly water down gun safety legislation. 

Graham said that SEIU is supportive, in theory, of any measure that might end Republican walkouts. But she argued that Measure 113 will ultimately hold up in court and have its intended effect, even if Republicans won’t face consequences for their actions until after the current session ends. 

“I understand that what people are seeking is immediate relief in the moment, and I think that is a totally acceptable and fair place to be, but the measure will work as intended,” Graham said. “These folks will be held accountable.”