There was a moment, early in the debate yesterday on the children’s insurance fund/cigarette tax legislation (House Bill 2201), of startling eloquence harkening back to a famous speech of old. It came when Representative Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, warned that “we should not place our children’s health on the altar of a nicotine addiction.” It echoed the brilliant 1896 speech of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Bryan, of course, lost that election, and the Oregon Republicans who stood (and walked) with Maurer on the health/cigarette bill are likely to lose, in the larger picture, as well. Bryan’s wilver issue eventually fell apart; the Oregon Republicans’ stance on the bill could do them some damage as well.
The bill essentially does two things. It creates a program and fund aimed at greatly expanding health insurance coverage for now-uninsured children in the state; the bill has been haggled over for months and has been significantly amended through that time, but not enough to draw substantial Republican support. Its backing has been almost entirely Democratic (and it is a primary project of Democratic Governor Ted Kulongowski). Because it involves an increase on cigarette taxes (raising the level roughly to that in neighboring Washington), it needs a 60% favorable vote in the Oregon House. To get it, five Republican votes are needed, and that’s more than it could get.
The House floor debate Thursday on the bill has been described as “the most wild day ever seen on the House floor,” which (after reviewing the couple of hours of activity there on the bill) is exaggeration.
The unusual activity consisted mostly of a series of procedural challenges to House Speaker Jeff Merkley (who remained tangled up in them for some time; you could only imagine how the more experienced Washington Speaker Frank Chopp would have sliced through the knots with a swift axe). The other element was the walkout, at one point, of just about all of the House members, leaving the chamber, for a few minutes, without a quorum. They included former Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, who must have forgotten her words from June 2004, when Democrats failed to show up for a special session she had sought: “I can respect a worthy adversary if they choose to disagree with my position and vote against me. I cannot however, respect those who use their absence from the body to which they have been elected as a strategy to obstruct a vote which could result in the passage of something with which they disagree. It is a cynical rationalization, a dereliction of duty and an insult to the voters of this great state.”
But the fact that all this occurred at all is striking, since logically it should not have. These sort of activities, the guerilla warfare of legislating, is ordinarily a last resort when hopelessly losing, or else when a majority is almost violently beating down on the minority. Neither was true in this case. The issue at hand was on the floor for an ordinary vote, and the debate was proceeding in ordinary fashion; until the Republican technical questions (which did not relate to any ability to debate or vote properly) the floor status was normal. More striking was this: The Republicans essentially were guaranteed to win the vote, which in the end they did.
We can only suppose here that they did what they did because it was the winning that constituted the problem.
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