COVID Shuts Down Oregon House, Again
The legislature has gone to great lengths this session to minimize the risk of exposing lawmakers, the lobby, and the public to the viral contagion. Despite these efforts, the coronavirus pandemic continues to direct the session’s course. On Tuesday, the legislature’s human resources director sent multiple alerts to all legislators and staff that at least two people active in recent House proceedings had tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon after, House Speaker Tina Kotek announced that the chamber would enter a one-week quarantine period for the third time in only weeks and postpone all its planned floor sessions for the week.
Although the House members returned to their districts for a week of virtual session, the distance from the building did nothing to encourage cooperation or, at the very least, cool tempers. Last Friday, the House Conduct Committee began proceedings to investigate claims of inappropriate conduct by Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) against another member of the legislature. The committee’s independent investigator recommended the temporary removal of Rep. Witt as chair of the House Agricultural & Natural Resources Committee until the investigation was completed. However, the Conduct Committee was reluctant to recommend his removal after he voluntarily offered to step down. On Tuesday, Rep. Vickki Breese Iverson (R-Prineville), who sits on the Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, acknowledged that she filed the complaint after receiving inappropriate text messages. In her comments, she was critical of the committee’s decision not to recommend removing Rep. Witt as chair or from the other committees they serve on together. The committee’s investigation and findings, which should conclude by the end of the month, could inflame an already delicate state of affairs in the building.
The quarantine protocol did not slow the course of politics in the House this week, as the chamber spent much of the week with its attention on gun control. The House Rules Committee has scheduled a vote later this afternoon on a proposal to combine the session’s gun control measures into a single bill. The proposal seeks to add firearm storage (e.g., cable locks and gun safes) and other safety requirements to a Senate measure allowing public bodies to prohibit guns in public buildings. These debates over gun control may garner fierce attention from supporters and opponents, but, as it relates to the politics of the session, the move is a game of chicken over parliamentary procedure. If a legislative chamber amends or replaces the contents of a measure already approved by its originating chamber, the legislature’s procedures require the originating chamber to reconsider the measure as the first order of business at its next meeting. Put another way, if the House amends and passes the combined gun measure, the Senate would see it appear at the top of its calendar without the ability for the minority party to do much to delay the proceeding.
This sequence of events over gun control plays directly into the politics of the session as the parties try to balance their partisan interests with the legislature’s constitutional responsibility to craft a biennial budget. Republicans have publicly acknowledged that walking out for weeks or months at a time during the long session is impracticable due to the cost and collateral damage for other priorities. If the gun control negotiation lingers until the final days of the session, Democrats may find themselves needing to either sacrifice the measure to keep Republicans in the building for budgetary and other must-pass legislation to move forward or risk another walkout. However, Democrats could perhaps avoid that scenario if they are successful at using the parliamentary rules to swiftly advance a gun measure before the final days of the session. Thus, the game of political chicken ensues.
For months now, the legislature has been without a single issue driving the session—leaving lawmakers few higher-profile issues to negotiate as the parties chart their way to the end-of-the-session. Perhaps gun control can serve as that negotiable item, or maybe it is just another episode of this unusual session.