Republicans hold a small fraction of seats in two Democratic states, but they enjoy outsized power.
In Massachusetts and Oregon, Democrats hold supermajority control of both legislative chambers. In each state, minority Republicans have been given greater deference or authority than their sheer numbers would command. But neither state can be described as a bipartisan paradise as a result.
There’s long been a rule in the Massachusetts Senate to require roll call votes when 20 percent of the members ask for them. But Republicans don’t hold 20 percent of the seats in the state Senate, which would equate to eight out of 40. When their numbers slipped to just seven senators, the rule was changed to allow any seven to require a roll call vote. After the Senate GOP caucus slipped to only six members, the rule was amended to say that the total number of Republican senators, however small, would suffice.
The point of this courtesy is that it allows the minority party to put the Senate as a whole on record when it comes to controversial policies. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, both chambers in Massachusetts hold fewer recorded votes than they did in past decades. “They’ve dramatically dropped what we call the significant votes,” says Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative watchdog group. “Now what they do more frequently is voice votes,” in which bills pass without individual votes being recorded.
Megan Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, says that “the raw numbers” don’t support such complaints. But the fact is that over the past six years, the Senate has held, on average, fewer than 300 recorded votes per year. That’s not a lot of roll calls, especially considering that many of them were legally required in response to line-item vetoes. Many other matters are settled informally, without the scrutiny that recorded votes might bring. In December, for example, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill to tax and regulate short-term housing units, such as those rented through Airbnb. Both chambers passed the bill without taking a recorded vote. This after a handful of newly elected Democratic legislators had run pledging to push for greater transparency on Beacon Hill, including more recorded roll calls.
In Oregon, the dynamic is a little different. There’s no rule, formal or otherwise, that guarantees the minority party any say in advancing or blocking legislation. But Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney prefers not to bring legislation to the floor without at least some Republican support, particularly revenue-raising bills. His fear is that Republicans will sit out votes if they’re not included in the process, depriving the body of a quorum. “When you really beat someone and you really put them down, you know, you can train an anger and a hatred that’s so violent, that they’ll go to every extreme they can think of to stop you,” he said in the aftermath of his party’s success in the November elections.
Courtney’s respect for members of the other party angers some people in his own. “Progressives are more than frustrated with the manner in which bills are not allowed to come to the floor of the Oregon state Senate,” says Dan Jensen, who chairs Progressive Oregon, an advocacy group. “Why do we work so hard to elect the people we want in office if it doesn’t make a difference?”
Oregon and Massachusetts illustrate two perennial realities of legislative life. The first is that minorities still count, even if their numbers are meager, when there is disagreement within majority ranks. And the second is that regardless of what the rulebooks say, what really matters is how leaders choose to manage the process.