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Pandemic’s Fourth Wave Intersects With Session

With the announced return of restrictions, the politics over the pandemic are increasingly converging with the session.
Pandemic’s Fourth Wave Intersects With Session

While coronavirus cases are falling in other areas of the country, Oregon’s cases and hospitalizations are spiking in a fourth wave of the virus. On Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced the surge of cases would trigger the return of sweeping social distancing restrictions impacting businesses in 15 of the state’s 36 counties, including a large swath of Portland and its southeast suburbs, beginning today. Under the announced restrictions, some businesses in those counties, such as bowling alleys, movie theaters, and gyms, must significantly reduce their capacity, and dining establishments may no longer operate with indoor dining. The announced restrictions received immediate pushback from some residents, elected officials, and business groups, as concerns mount over the ability of businesses to stay alive through another round of operating restrictions and closures.

With the announced return of restrictions, the politics over the pandemic are increasingly converging with the session. The legislature has been out of session throughout much of the pandemic and pandemic-related emergency orders. Now, with the legislature active in its session, some lawmakers believe the legislature needs a seat at the table for determining the use of the governor’s emergency powers and pandemic-related restrictions. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans launched a protest against the restrictions by refusing to suspend the constitutional requirement for the chamber to read measures in their entirety before final passage. In a press release during the floor session, the Republicans announced the slowdown, like the one in the House only a few weeks ago, was “an important tool to encourage bipartisan collaboration,” and that “Senate Republicans stand ready to work with Democrats to reform the Governor’s unchecked powers.” On Thursday, Republicans continued their refusal to suspend the reading requirement and, at this point, it remains unclear how long the protest will endure.

In the House, the politics over gun control has increasingly dominated the attention of lawmakers in recent weeks, diverting some of the attention from the session’s other contentious debates. After adopting amendments that combined new firearm restrictions and safety requirements into a single bill, the House debated and ultimately passed the measure on the floor. For several weeks, gun-rights advocacy groups and their supporters pressured Republicans to walk away from the session and deny the quorum necessary for the chamber to proceed with its vote. Many Republicans have grown tired and frustrated with the rhetoric coming from these groups and their form letters characterizing an agreement to equitably spend American Rescue Plan Act funds across the state as a slush-fund to buy votes. In the words of these groups, Republicans are “sticking it” to gun owners by not shutting down the session. In an impassioned speech on the floor, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan said, “The people who vote with you are not your enemy.” Since the measure originated from the Senate, it must now return to the chamber for concurrence, which could mean another clash between gun rights groups and lawmakers.

Although this session has featured an unusual amount of tense moments, and, naturally, our attention draws to those moments to determine if and how they might influence the politics, it is also important to note the session’s bipartisan moments. Throughout the session, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Reps. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) and Ron Noble (R-McMinnville), worked to evaluate and respond to the social justice movement’s calling for policing reforms. After at least 20 hearings over 11 weeks, the subcommittee recommended a bipartisan package of reforms to improve oversight, accountability, and racial equity in the policing institutions throughout the state. On Monday, the House approved a series of measures from the subcommittee with broad bipartisan support. Notably, these policing bills are only part of the conversation for Oregon, as many lawmakers are committed to working with advocates and institutions to right the course of history.

It may seem strange to talk about special sessions while the legislature is currently in its regular session, but, then again, this is a peculiar year. On Tuesday, the presiding officers notified lawmakers to plan for a special session on redistricting during the week of September 20. The special session has the potential to be the most consequential in recent memory as we learned this week that Oregon would gain a new congressional district for the first time in four decades. Needless to say, the legislature plans to keep everyone on their toes far beyond this session’s timeline.