Pandemic, Restrictions Drive Politics of the Session
The legislature has spent much of its time this session contending with issues traditionally outside its attention. Throughout the session, the legislature has dealt with a series of complaints and investigations regarding legislator conduct (including an active criminal probe against one for allowing protestors to infiltrate the building during a special session) and the public and political response to the pandemic. Arguably, this category of “other” issues is taking the place of high-profile or controversial legislation that would generally command the center of attention, and this week was no exception.
On Tuesday, only days after Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced that 15 counties would enter the most restrictive level of business activity due to a fourth surge of the coronavirus, the governor announced she was lifting the order. In April, the governor modified the metrics used to determine county risk levels, including a new requirement that statewide hospitalizations increase by 15 percent. Under the hospitalization metric, Oregon would need to see its statewide hospitalizations increase by 15 percent over seven days. On Tuesday, the day of the week the state announces changes to county risk levels, the Oregon Health Authority reported the seven-day figure to only increase by 14.9 percent. If the state had two more patients hospitalized with COVID-19, those counties, and likely others, would remain at the most restrictive level.
Republicans in both chambers of the legislature spent much of the week protesting the governor’s restrictions, including the continued reading of the bills in the Senate and a near-successful attempt in the House to force a vote on a bipartisan measure requiring legislative oversight of the governor’s emergency powers. Republicans are also increasing their rhetoric in press statements, newsletters, and floor speeches with critical comments about the state’s response to the pandemic and its impact on everyday life.
Intraparty tensions are routine in politics but rarely see the light of day for the public. There’s often an unspoken code of silence among caucus members not to share the squabbles that occur within the caucus room (unless you ask the right person, that is). Throughout the session, tensions have been increasing within the Senate Republican Caucus over the party’s response to business restrictions, the closure of the Capitol, and, more generally, controversial legislation proposed for the session. The rumor mill has fanned for weeks about internal caucus debates over if and when a walkout is necessary, but legislators mostly steered clear of public remarks and actions over the dispute. On Wednesday, however, a pair of Republican senators introduced a measure squarely aimed at two of their colleagues. The measure, S.B. 865, prohibits state elected officials from serving as an officer for a political party, effectively making them choose which position they value more. The measure targets two senators, Sens. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg) and Dennis Linthicum (R-Klamath Falls), who were recently elected as chair and treasurer of the state party. In the legislature, the senators have voted against most bills and, at times, skipped legislative activity altogether to protest the building’s closure. Notably, the Senate Majority Leader signed on to the measure as a chief sponsor, signaling that Democrats may be willing to take up the Republican proposal.
Although these other issues controlled much of the political attention this week, the legislature did send one of the session’s more controversial measures to the governor’s desk. On Wednesday, the Senate approved the House amendments combining the session’s gun control and storage requirements into a single measure. The bill, which was one of the featured policy debates of the last several weeks, was approved with only minimal discussion and now awaits the governor’s signature.
Next week marks the second major deadline of the session. If a measure is not scheduled for a work session in its second chamber policy committee by the end of the day on Friday, May 14, the bill will effectively die for the session. After the deadline, the policy committees will have until Friday, May 28, to approve any amendments and send measures to the floor or a special committee. The deadline operates as a spring cleaning of sorts for the session as the legislature prepares to enter its final sprint to adjournment.