Quorum and other legislative session questions explained
The Oregon legislative session officially ended Sunday, March 8. With nearly all Republicans absent, the constitutionally mandated clock simply ran out.
The mostly fruitless 2020 session left behind some questions.
What’s the deal with this quorum and denial of quorum and walkout?
Each chamber requires a minimum number of legislators to be physically present to conduct business or hold a vote. In the House of Representatives, with a total of 60 members, the quorum is 40. In the Senate, with a total of 30 members, the quorum is 20. Twelve of 30 senators are Republicans and 22 of 60 representatives are Republicans. For either chamber to do any work, some Democrats and some Republicans must be present. There were not enough Democrats or Republicans to meet the quorum solely with their own membership.
Where does the procedural quorum requirement come from?
The Oregon Constitution, Article IV, Sec. 12 states, “Two thirds of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business.”
Do other states have a two-thirds requirement?
Oregon is one of a handful of states that requires a two-thirds quorum. Oregon likely took the two-thirds provision from the Indiana Constitution, which was adopted six years earlier than Oregon's. Oregon constitutional drafters copied whole sections of the Indiana Constitution, according to the Oregon Law Review, a practice that was somewhat common during westward expansion. Most states require a simple majority, meaning 50% plus one, for a quorum.
Committees were still meeting during the walkout. How is this possible?
Committee rules are different than chamber rules. Committees require a simple majority for a quorum. Committees can also meet to receive testimony with fewer members than a quorum requires, which is why sometimes there will be only one legislator listening to a presentation. To vote, however, a simple majority quorum is required.
Why did committees keep meeting?
For most of the duration of the two-week walkout, there was hope that there would be an agreement between Democrats and Republicans that would deliver a quorum to the chamber floors. Only in the last few days of the session did the hope fade after the speaker of the House and Senate president called off any remaining meetings. However, before that call was made, there was an almost two-week period during which bills, if they were going to ultimately be ready for a vote on short notice, had to be worked and moved through committees.
How many bills passed this session?
By OSBA’s count, 287 measures were introduced this session, with approximately 250 of those being bills. Three passed into law. One is relevant to education, House Bill 4140, which is a policy bill related to “return to learn” for students after suffering a concussion or other brain injury. The bill requires the Oregon Department of Education to develop documentation for school districts to use when a student is returning to school after suffering a brain injury.
Three bills? That’s it?
Indeed. Walking out is an effective tool in stopping the Legislature’s work.
What happens to the bills that did not get a vote?
They’re all dead. Bills that do not get an affirmative vote from both chambers are no longer active at the session’s conclusion. It is reasonable to expect that some of the same concepts will be drafted again next session, including word-for-word “redrafts” of bills.
So which side is right here, the Republicans or the Democrats?
For public schools, there’s no correct answer to that question. Right or wrong is not relevant when disagreement is so fundamental that it breaks the legislative process and prevents important education bills from being heard. Democrats have accused Republicans of violating their responsibility to come to the Capitol and vote. Republicans have countered by saying the walkout was the only way to meet their constituents’ needs and have accused the Democrats of employing a “rigged process” with supermajority backing. No matter which side you find persuasive, there is no precedent for this kind of disagreement. Dick Hughes, a journalist who has been covering the Capitol since 1976, summed up the session in a column as complicated gamesmanship. He added: “This has been a bizarre five weeks at the Capitol.”
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist