State Democratic leaders last week backed off their plans to fine Republican senators who twice boycotted the Capitol this past legislative session. The reasoning by Democrats, and this probably is correct, is that the big legal bills that would be generated by the court fight that was certain to ensue would more than cancel out the $3,500 in fines that might have been collected from each GOP senator.

Instead, the Senate Democratic leaders said they would pursue a constitutional amendment to change Oregon’s quorum requirement. Our hunch is that this one of those cases in which Democrats need to be careful what they wish for, but before we explain why, here’s a refresher course on what the Legislature means by “quorum.”

In most cases, a body achieves a quorum when it has a simple majority: A 13-member board, for example, reaches a quorum when at least seven members attend a meeting. (In fact, Senate Democrats said, for the vast majority of state legislatures, a simple majority is good enough for a quorum.) Without a quorum, the body is unable to conduct any official business such as voting.

In Oregon, however, the state constitution has a different definition of quorum: Each legislative chamber requires two-thirds of its members before it can reach a quorum. For the 30-member state Senate, for example, that means at least 20 members needs to be present. In the 60-member House, the number required is 40.

As you might recall, Democrats held so-called “supermajorities” in each legislative chamber during this past session: Bills that would raise revenue for the state require support from at least three-fifths of the members in each chamber to earn passage, and Democrats on paper had that advantage. (In practice, as Democrats learned this session, those supermajorities don’t offer any sort of guarantee that any particular measure will pass.)

But those supermajorities in both chambers fell short of reaching the level necessary to achieve a quorum, a fact that Senate Republicans used to their advantage twice during the session. When the Senate’s other 11 Republicans boycotted the Capitol, that body was two votes shy of a quorum, and the GOP was able to extract legislative concessions that frankly it could not achieved through any other means. (This, of course, is part of the reason why pursuing the fines would have guaranteed a lengthy legal battle: Democrats would have argued that Republicans had walked off the work site, but Republicans would have responded that they were doing their job by using every tool at their disposal to derail legislation that they felt could have harmed their constituents.)

All this raises a question that an enterprising political science student may want to examine: Why does the state constitution have that two-thirds quorum rule in the first place? After all, it’s unusual for any political party to enjoy that kind of numerical edge in the Legislature. Here’s our speculation: This provision is designed in part to encourage bipartisan cooperation on major policy decisions — and also to give the minority party one last card to be used in desperate times.

And it’s not just Republicans who have employed that last measure: In 2001, Oregon House Democrats walked out and hid to stop a vote on a Republican legislative redistricting bill. They stayed away for almost a week.

It’s been a while since Democratic legislators have felt the need to boycott the Capitol. These days, Democrats consistently win majorities in the Legislature, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Still, this is Oregon, and stranger things have happened in the state’s politics. Democrats may be riding high now, but political karma can be vicious; at some point in the future, they may find that they regret tossing aside that last desperate card that the state’s constitution makes available to the beleaguered members of the minority. 

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