Clock becomes a weapon in the Legislature

Republicans in the Oregon Legislature wasted no time in vowing to use the only real weapon they have against majority Democrats in the 35-day 2018 session: running out the clock.

An obscure provision in the Oregon Constitution requires that every bill that comes up for final passage in either chamber must be read aloud in its entirety. The provision was approved by voters as an amendment in 1946. That can take a great deal of time, especially for bills that stretch to dozens of pages. The provision allows lawmakers to waive the requirement, but only with a two-thirds vote. Ordinarily, the rule is suspended and only the number and title of each bill is read by a clerk.

On the session's first day Monday, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, proposed waiving the requirement for all bills during the short session; the vote was 17-13 in favor, but 20 votes were required to waive the rule. Now the rule must be waived separately for every bill that comes up for final passage.

Senate Republicans say they have no intention of forcing every bill to be read aloud, but they will reserve the option on a case-by-case basis. House Republican leader Mike McLane said his caucus, too, reserves the right to use the delaying tactic.

Ultimately, that's all it is. Republicans also employed the tactic in the 2016 short session when Democrats were pushing to increase the minimum wage. The bill eventually passed anyway, but Republicans succeeded in slowing things down and making a point, if only a symbolic one.

Their argument is that short sessions, approved by voters in 2010, are for making necessary budget adjustments and enacting minor legislation, not for major policy initiatives. The point is valid, but the minority party is powerless to stop major bills if the majority is determined to pass them.

This year, Democrats want to pass a sweeping cap-and-invest plan for greenhouse gas emissions, gun control measures and other bills certain to attract no support from Republicans.

Threatening to slow the proceedings as a protest seems on the surface a childish reaction to feeling powerless, but the Democrats share some of the blame by insisting on pushing an ambitious agenda in a session that by law must end in just five weeks.

Leaders of both parties made all the usual noises about bipartisan cooperation, but Republicans made it clear they would use the delaying tactic if they wanted to. And Democrats have the power to compel night and weekend sessions if needed to get bills passed.

Minority Republicans are fond of complaining that the Democrats are abusing their majority status, and they are. But if the balance of power were reversed, it's not hard to envision the GOP doing the same thing, and Democrats playing the game of trying to run out the clock.

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