Profiles in Cowardice: Oregon Lawmakers Run Away from Climate Action. Literally.

March 2, 2020
Jessica Paterson/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Executive Director

Several months ago, I kicked off a series of blog posts profiling the lack of courage so frequently demonstrated by our elected leaders, their appointees, and their compatriots in the corporate sector. I knew there would be no shortage of material. Cowardice is not limited by place, sector, or issue. It cuts across state lines and all areas of leadership.

For this series, I define cowardice as lacking the firmness of purpose to put the public interest first and foremost. Today’s post builds on that with an even more literal aspect of cowardice—running away.

Oregon lawmakers missing in action

Last week, 11 Republican senators walked off the job and took to the hills; they literally ran away in order to prevent a vote on a climate bill (SB1530) that would phase in tighter restrictions on carbon emissions. Not to be outdone and in a show of solidarity with their colleagues in the Senate, Republicans in the House walked out the following day. Their absence stopped all legislative business cold, thanks to a quirky provision in the state’s constitution which requires a quorum of two-thirds of the legislative body for a vote.

A large majority of Oregon voters elected Democrats to represent them; for now, Democrats hold a super majority in both houses, and Republicans are in the minority. That was the will of the Oregonian people, and their duly elected representatives were ready to vote and likely pass a climate bill last week. Instead of doing their jobs, fulfilling their responsibilities to the people of Oregon, and abiding by democratic norms and processes, the minority simply walked out, in essence holding democracy hostage. Caught in the hold-up were bills on homelessness, wildfire preparedness, and assistance for flood victims.

Republicans did the same thing last year on a similar climate bill, crossing state lines to thwart any attempt by Oregon state troopers to round them up and bring them back to work. And climate is not the only subject that has ruffled their feathers. They’ve walked off the job several times over the past two years—three times in the last nine months alone—to prevent votes on a business tax bill and bills on gun control and vaccines. Bills written with the public interest first and foremost in mind; bills that likely would have passed but for the cowardly runaway senators. (David Roberts of Vox provides more details and a powerful analysis of the situation.)

The climate clock is ticking

SB 1530 calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 45% below 1990 emissions levels by 2035 and to at least 80% below by 2050. It would require big greenhouse gas emitters to obtain credits for each metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit. It is a bill years in the making, already subjected to negotiation and compromise that has left it considerably weaker than where it started. And where it should be given what the science tells us about the urgency of action and the rapidly closing window to avoid the most catastrophic impacts. But it’s not nothing either. It’s a step in the right direction.

One can have an honest disagreement with the policy or with specific provisions in the bill. But is staging a walkout what the tax-paying people of Oregon want and deserve? No. People and organizations are calling on them to go back to work. Others are working on ballot initiatives that would threaten legislators who walk out with being tossed out of office. All are saying that enough is enough.

Unlike many of our federally elected leaders, the majority of Oregon’s lawmakers are stepping up to the plate with a cross-sectoral proposal for climate action. It deserves a vote. The missing-in-action legislators can run, but they cannot hide from the current and future impacts of climate change on their constituents.

Democracy is at risk

As much as I worry about the climate, I find myself equally worried about the fragile state of our democracy. In Oregon, we are witnessing how a small and demographically homogeneous minority can disrupt and hold the state hostage. Nationally, it appears that the fundamental institutions of our democracy—our elected and appointed officials, our laws and regulatory system, even the courts—are under threat.

Science, evidence, and facts are being ignored or discounted. Lies and disinformation circulate broadly. Our government agencies are being denigrated, sidelined, and hollowed out (see here, here, and here). Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the unfettered and out-sized role of money in politics is undermining the basic function of democracy—representation of the people. All the people.

But I take heart in the courage of our stalwart and dedicated public servants who slog on and continue to work in the public interest day after day. I take heart in the courage and voice of ordinary people who speak up, speak out, and will help hold our elected leaders accountable. Unnamed though they be, these are the profiles in courage that inspire and give me hope. They (we) are the counterweight to cowardice.