On Monday of this week, the 81st Assembly of the Oregon Legislature convened for a Special Session on Redistricting. The Oregon Constitution, Oregon statutes, and a recent decision reached by Oregon Supreme Court all align, requiring the Oregon Legislature to complete the once every decade exercise of redrawing the state’s legislative and federal congressional district boundaries by September 27th. Both Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek presided over their respective Chambers on the morning of Monday, September 20th. They met to initiate the special session, adopt the procedural rules to govern it, and kickstart what they’d hoped to be only a two-day exercise.
The opening statements, processes, procedures, and early votes of every session (especially the shortened Special Sessions) are often revealing and of interest. On Monday, President Courtney spoke of the large walnut tree on the Capitol grounds that had fallen during last winter’s ice storm, acknowledging that Senate Minority Leader, Republican Fred Girod had suffered the loss of his house from fallen trees during that same ice storm. He made a point to thank Sen. Girod for his work initiating a memorial for the lost tree. No Senators spoke in favor nor against the subsequent motion to adopt the rules. The motion passed with Senator Girod voting yes. However, six of his Senate Republican colleagues—one half of the Republican caucus–voted no. This frequent split within the Senate Republican caucus does not receive much attention from the Oregon media, but I believe it reflects and represents the significant number of Oregonians who don’t believe in the legitimacy of political and government functions, especially where Democrats are in the Majority. Sometimes I remind my friends on the left that legislators espousing views they abhor are actually just doing their jobs. One of the only things that nearly every legislator in Salem has in common is that they are quite good at representing the views of the majority of the voters in their district.
The initial proceedings in the House also included bipartisan collegiality with a swift undercurrent of division. All members present rose to greet two new Republican members to the Chamber with a standing ovation. Moments later, the motion by Rep. Paul Holvey to adopt the House rules for the Special Session was approved on partisan lines. Several House Republicans spoke out in opposition, noting that they’d only received a copy of the proposed rules the night before and objecting in particular to a provision that would allow the Speaker to impose financial fines on Members for not being present on the House floor for votes. Seemingly, this provision would lessen the Minority party’s interest in another walk out to halt the proceedings entirely by denying quorum.
By close of business on Monday, the Senate passed two separate redistricting bills. SB 882 redraws the maps and boundaries for the 30 State Senate and 60 State House districts. The bill passed the Senate floor on an entirely partisan vote but without much drama. Analysis conducted by most outlets suggests the new maps are not alone likely to result in dramatic changes to the partisan make-up of the Legislature. By and large, previous voting behavior in the new districts suggest that Democrats would be favored to hold on to their Supermajority status in both the House and Senate. The lines are noteworthy for their favorable treatment to the individual Senators who currently serve, many of whom would find it even easier than previously to be re-elected. This was subsequently noted with criticism by good government stalwart, House Rep. Marty Wilde.
The new lines and maps found within SB 881 were more controversial from the start. This bill creates the new United States House Congressional District map, and due to Oregon’s growing population from the Census count, adds a new Congressional District within Oregon. In November of 2022, Oregon will vote to elect 6 members of the U.S. House of Representatives rather than our previous 5. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and federally elected Democrats hold the enormous power of being in the Majority of that Chamber by only a 3 vote margin. Therefore the district lines and voting behavior of each and every Congressional district in America is of huuuuge consequence. SB 881 also passed the Senate on an entirely partisan vote. However, the more intense rhetoric used by Senate Republicans to articulate their opposition proved to foreshadow the ‘shit the hitting the fan’ in the House but a few hours later.
As SB 881 and SB 882 reached Speaker Kotek’s desk on Monday afternoon, she announced the creation of two separate House committees to take them up. The makeup of the SB 881 Committee would be comprised of two Democrats and one Republican, a surprise development that infuriated the Republicans. Towards the end of the Regular session a few months ago, they’d reached a deal with Speaker Kotek that in exchange for halting their procedural delay tactics, Speaker Kotek would appoint equal bipartisan representation to the Redistricting Committee. Democrats claimed that Republicans didn’t participate with good faith in the equal bipartisan Interim Committee on Redistricting, so didn’t deserve to have equal representation on this new committee. Republicans took to the floor to call out Speaker Kotek personally for going back on her word, for having no integrity, and for planning to swindle them all along. The tension was thick, attacks were personal, and members of both parties were quite upset and offended. The body then recessed, with the entire Capitol scene of lobbyists, staffers, administrators, and legislators all holding their collective breaths waiting to see what may unfold next. Negotiations between the two party leaders ensued overnight, and well into Tuesday.
We are still operating amidst the tragedies and political divisions of the COVID epidemic—COVID remains a force in the Capitol, both epidemiologically and politically. On Tuesday afternoon, Speaker Kotek returned to the dais overseeing an empty Chamber to announce that someone inside the Capitol the day prior had tested positive, and the day’s proceedings would halt until Wednesday morning. It is interesting to note that one of her earlier announcements pleaded with her colleagues to wear their masks on the House floor, even when speaking into their microphones. Rep. Post, a Republican talk radio host, had earlier proclaimed that the rules allowed him to speak into his microphone without his mask, so long as no one was six feet from him. He encouraged other House members to exercise their rights to do so as well. Also interesting to note is that earlier in the day on the Senate side, President Peter Courtney called out Sen. Dallas Heard, who was again not allowed to be on the Senate floor due to his refusal to wear a mask. President Courtney pleaded with him to put a mask on while he was seated up in the gallery. To the surprise of no one, Sen. Heard refused. President Courtney merely noted for the record that Sen. Heard was out of order and then proceeded on. Sen. Heard then voted no all votes, as he has done for the entirety of 2021.
Wednesday morning arrived, but brought only an announcement from the House floor that the day’s activities would in fact be postponed until Saturday morning. It appears the House Republicans have decided to boycott the proceedings to deny the Chamber a quorum. At least several House Democrats are also not happy with the versions of the maps that were passed by the Senate. Absences of all the House members, from both parties, were given the official status of “Excused”. This would appear to indicate that no fines for being absent are likely at this time. Behind the scenes, intense negotiations continue…… We’ll see what happens on Saturday!