Wendy Davis Filibuster Couldn't Happen Here

Texas Senator Wendy Davis, who was a teen mother, gripped the nation with a 11-hour talking filibuster to kill an anti-abortion bill. Despite the intrigue and tons of YouTube views, a filibuster like that couldn't happen in the Oregon legislature.The high stakes drama that unfolded on the Texas Senate floor Tuesday night had the makings of unending intrigue for political science junkies — a live talking filibuster, procedural motions galore, raucous crowds in the gallery and a bill dealing with the most politically divisive issue in America today: abortion.

Watching the debate on YouTube reminded me why I got into state politics to begin with — the consequences of decisions are so immediate to citizens, the forum is accessible and the drama is so real.

The debate evoked memories of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as Texas Senator Wendy Davis stood for more than 11 hours — with no water, no leaning and a warning after a colleague helped adjust her back brace — speaking against Senate Bill 5.

Facebook and Twitter came alive with comments and support for Davis. YouTube registered thousands of views as a growing number of people watched the proceedings on the Texas Senate floor as if it were a New Year's Day bowl game.

Adding to the excitement was the clock — if the debate could extend past midnight in Austin, the anti-abortion bill would die under the rules of the Texas legislative special session. As the clock neared midnight, Texans in the gallery took to their feet to disrupt proceedings for the remaining 15 minutes, which ultimately killed the bill. Truly, a storybook ending to this amazing story of political suspense and maneuvering.

For all of the excitement in Texas and the adoration heaped on Senator Davis as a result of her filibuster, the reality in Oregon is such a showdown could not occur here. The arcane rules of procedure that govern the Oregon House and Senate provide very specific processes for debate — none of which allow a filibuster. In both Oregon chambers, members are limited to five minutes of discussion in debate.

Under limited circumstances, they can speak longer, but under no circumstances can a member go on for 10 hours to stop debate on a bill. Oregon also limits the ability of the minority to amend bills on the floor, withdraw measures from committee or prevent the orderly completion of business.

Nonetheless, Oregon has had its fair share of parliamentary intrigue over the years and the minority does have ways to stop the progress of the session. Here are just a few of the ways:

  1. Refusing to Vote — In 2007, former Rep. John Lim created quite a stir on the House floor when he refused to vote on a bill concerning tobacco taxes. The House came to a standstill as the Speaker and Parliamentarian tried to get him to vote. Oregon law requires legislators on the floor during a vote to cast a yes or no vote; they are not allowed to abstain. Today House Rules provide that if a member refuses to vote, the House will censure that member and their vote will be recorded as a “yea” on the measure in which they refused to vote.
  2. Denying a Quorum — To conduct business, the House and Senate require two-thirds of their members present (20 in the Senate, 40 in the House). It is rare that one party controls two-thirds of either chamber, so to conduct business requires the presence of both parties. From time to time, on controversial bills, the minority has physically left the building, at times even the state, to deny that chamber’s leadership the ability to conduct business. Perhaps the most infamous use of this "tool" was in 2002 when the legislature was in one of its many special sessions that year. The minority party left the building and fled to tribal land, outside of the ability of the state police to track them down and escort them back to the building.
  3. Rules Suspension — At the end of the session, pressure mounts to move bills quickly so everyone can go home. But procedural rules require a waiting period between when bills leave committee and come to a vote on the floor. Bills can and do move faster, but only with the approval of at least two-thirds of the members to suspend the rules and advance the business of the chamber. The minority has long used refusal to grant rules suspension to gain concessions in end-of-session negotiations.
  4. Minority Reports — The only tool the minority can use to present an alternative form of a bill on the floor is a minority report. If a measure receives at least two “no” votes in committee, the minority of the committee may present a alternate version of the bill for floor consideration, though new rules require the subject of that alternate version to be discussed during the hearing in which the bill was passed. These minority reports often fail on what are known as procedural votes — where the majority all agrees to vote against the minority as a matter of “procedure” — without regard to the substance of the vote. The one recent exception to this rule was earlier this session on a version of the tax package when the majority didn’t have the votes to pass their version of a bill and all willingly voted for the minority report.

While these procedural tools protect the opportunity of the minority to bring forward new and different perspectives, the more significant protection of everyone’s voice in Oregon’s process are the institutional giants who value and respect the legislative process. Oregon has legislative leaders of both political parties and parliamentarians who are deeply devoted to good legislative process.

It’s easy to overlook in the heat of the end of session, but the rights of the minority — and the majority — are protected only to the extent that parliamentarians remain nonpartisan, thus advising both sides fairly. And, it takes the leadership of both parties remaining committed to open dialogue, even when things have gone terribly wrong.

Oregon is lucky as a state to have giants in the legislative process that make sure the process is as open as possible, fair and respectful. From a parliamentarian who has been working in the Oregon House for more than 40 years to a Senate President currently setting a record for the number of consecutive terms as the presiding officer, the rights of all members are protected by those who love the legislature and her processes first — and the interests of their parties second.

It may not be as exciting or newsworthy as a great debate in Texas, but when Oregon adjourns Sine Die within the next week, it will be to the cheers and applause of all of the members on the floor together, not to jeers and boos of those in the gallery.