It is unclear what lessons the Democratic Party will take from the premature end to the Oregon state legislative session and it is frightening to think about what the lesson is for Republicans. For six days, eleven GOP State Senators have been on the run, in an attempt to prevent the passage of HB 2020, a cap and trade bill similar to legislation that already exists in nearby California. During these six days, armed far-right militia groups mobilized, a Republican state Senator threatened the lives of law enforcement officials, and the statehouse had to close amid threats of violence. All of this culminated in news late Tuesday night that the State Senate President has pulled HB 2020 from the docket.
It is hard not to see portents of dark times in these headlines. After all, what moral is the American political right supposed to take from this situation if not that anti-democratic action with the backing of armed anti-government extremists works in preventing a progressive agenda, even in states in which the GOP is the legislative minority.
Earlier this month, HB 2020 passed the lower house of the Oregon State Legislature. Governor Kate Brown is in support of the bill, as are a majority of the members of the state’s Senate. In order to prevent the inevitable passing of this legislation, a group of eleven state Republicans have apparently fled the state to Idaho, under the support of members of far right “militia” organizations like the Oath Keepers and the 3%ers.
Members of a minority party leaving town to deny the majority party quorum before a vote is not a new tactic, nor one that is unique to the Republican Party. This is not even the first time the Oregon Republican Party has done this in recent memory. However, reactionary politicians explicitly allying themselves with heavily armed groups openly speaking the language of civil war in order to prevent climate change legislation is a new development. As the effects of climate change become more apparent and the need for legislative action becomes more dire, it is possible that conservative politicians elsewhere in the country may look to Oregon as the playbook to follow.
The political theorist Corey Robin defines conservatism as “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Readers familiar with gerrymandering, voter ID laws, or the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, to use three high profile examples, know how ugly that process can look. The story of the death of HB 2020 can be understood as another example of the Republican Party grasping at any tools it can in order to not cede power. It just happens that in this instance, the tools at hand included members of armed far-right political factions the party typically distances itself from.
Brian Boquist was hardly a well-known political figure outside of Oregon before the legislative walkout. Elected in 2009, Boquist is hardly remarkable among a sea of similar conservative state-level politicians throughout the country. He is a recipient of money from the lumber and oil industries and, of course, opposed to cap and trade. Boquist’s reaction to the news that Governor Brown would attempt to use state police to maintain quorum is what brought him to national media attention. “Send bachelors,” he said in a now-famous soundbite, “and come heavily armed.”
Meanwhile, the Oath Keepers and the 3%ers began to mobilize, using the language of civil war on their social media accounts and offering to provide armed security to the eleven run away senators. The senators ultimately declined the offer and the party has denounced violent rhetoric. But not until after the Statehouse was closed this Saturday for fear of terroristic violence and the state GOP spent the day on twitter, mocking their Democratic opponents for fearing militia attack.
It should not be lost in all of this that HB 2020 was not a particularly radical piece of legislation. The purpose of this bill is not to weigh the merits of cap and trade as policy, however, it would be remiss not to point out that the legislation seems to have as many critics from the left as it does from the right. However, the bill’s left-leaning critics are not the ones delivering death threats. One environmental organization that has taken a critical stance on HB 2020 is OPAL, a Portland-based grassroots organization dedicated to environmental justice. OPAL has characterized the bill as a “false solution,” that would fail to adequately prevent further pollution. John Talberth of the Center for Sustainable Economy shares the following criticism of the bill:
(1) it leaves out many sources of GHGs; (2) it does little to scale up the natural climate solutions scientists are urging governments globally to embrace in order to meet the goals set by the Paris Climate Accord; (3) it has limited ability to generate revenues significant enough to meet our climate adaptation needs; (4) it fails to prevent new fossil fuel infrastructure, and (5) it fails to remedy longstanding environmental injustices.
If a bill that does not fundamentally challenge the role of the fossil fuel industry in the economy sparks a full-on militia panic, it is worth wondering what we must prepare for in the fight for legislation that goes beyond cap and trade.
HB 2020 is not the only legislation imperiled by the abrupt cessation of this legislative session. On Monday I was able to speak with Sydney Scout, State Director of the Oregon Working Families Party. Among progressive legislature that would have been on pace to pass this week had it not been for the flight of the Senate GOP. Following a multi-year campaign, a bill granting workers in Oregon paid family medical leave made it out of the House this year and was on track to become law. A bill to allow undocumented residents of the state to receive drivers licenses is also now in limbo.
“There should not be a single-issue focus on this story,” Scout said. “This isn’t just about climate change, it is about paid family leave, and immigrants’ rights, and democracy in general.” She added that “many of our worries in Oregon come from the idea that if the Republicans pull this off here, this might become their playbook nationally.”
To those readers, who are outside of Oregon wondering what the apparent success of that playbook might mean, I cannot stress enough the importance of the advice Scout shared on that call. “More broadly, in terms of building movements, we need to use this moment to agitate and to organize.”
Photo courtesy of KPTV.