While my wife and I were drinking our way through Oregon this weekend, I noted that the street corners were not filled with state senators using lethal force against capitol troopers. So I didn’t stop drinking. But the specter of that outcome existed due to this quote from state senator Brian Boquist:
“Send bachelors and come heavily armed.”
Wowsers. When I heard that, I had to make sure I heard it right. I learned that Senator Boquist is a CIA-connected Army veteran who owns an ammunition company. If there’s one state legislator who could credibly make good on winning an armed standoff with police, it’s Boquist. If his statement got my attention, it surely got theirs. Why would anyone threaten to kill the very capitol police that protects him on a daily basis?
For this to make even a shred of sense to those outside the Pacific Northwest, I’ll run the tape back for you. Here’s what’s going down south of my border.
In a few days, the Oregon legislative session will end. More than a hundred bills await votes. One of them is an expansive climate change bill, which, like all such bills, the GOP opposes. But the state legislature and governship are controlled by Democrats. The bills don’t require a supermajority. All they should need is for the Democrats to vote yes and the governor to sign the bill.
But as it turns out, that’s not all they need. They need a quorum, a minimum of 20 senators present to have the bill voted on at all. There are only 30 seats total in the Senate, and the Democrats control 18. So if 11 state senators just refuse to show up for work, the Democrats can’t hold a vote. That’s exactly what they did. They walked out, prompting an intriguing request from Senate Leader Peter Courtney, which Governor Kate Brown heeded:
“I’m requesting you direct Oregon State Police to assist Senate for purposes of establishing quorum.”
I’ve heard about this kind of thing. When I was at the Washington capitol this spring, Senator Steve Hobbs told me of a 1970s dustup where legislators jumped over railings to get out of the capitol rather than be caught by police. These senators had too, so they fled the capitol grounds in Salem. Some of them even fled to Idaho, which, being Republican-held, washed its hands of the whole thing. An Oregon militia called the Three Percenters promised to stand between senators and police, presumably with guns drawn; the GOP senators at least were smart enough to turn down that helpful offer.
The senators going on the lam needed someone to speak for them. Probably to their chagrin, Boquist elected himself their spokesman. He said before the walkout, “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” That’s when he threatened troopers’ lives, said his threat was not “thinly veiled,” and the NRA backed up his threat. Despite being an arms dealer, Boquist is no friend to the NRA; he got their ire up when,in memory of his son who killed himself, he cosponsored a law that prohibits possession of firearms by a person who presents imminent risk of suicide or injury to others. If Boquist’s threat of violence was being backed by the NRA, this was a huge deal, on the level of the Ammon Bundy’s militiamen occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve. Suddenly, everybody within one state in any direction took Oregon politics a lot more seriously. When gun-toting chaosmongers get their legislators to take up arms, our future looks bleak.
It’s hard to know how this will end. But it’s pretty easy to spot how it began. The rules requiring a quorum that is greater than half the body’s size mean that every bill requires a de facto supermajority unless the minority allows it. Under these rules, the minority is incentivized never to show up for votes. That walkouts don’t happen much is the shock, not that they happen at all.
Legendary game designer Jonathan Tweet coined the following maxim that has stuck with me and been applied to every game I’ve designed:
“Don’t pay players to do things you don’t want them to do.”
When a player sees they can do something without penalty, and that thing is in their best interest, they will do it. If that thing stops the game from functioning, the rule that allows it is broken. Brokenness is a term game designers use to isolate problems; a rule might seem good on the surface but cause unintended side effects that derail play. Taking advantage of these rules is called degenerate behavior. That’s when a normal player might feel comfortable acting against their best interests in the spirit of the game, but a degenerate player would not. Jonathan Tweet’s rule says that if you pay your players to do things that break your game, it’s not the players’ faults. It’s your fault for making a broken game.
An example from a game everyone knows: In Monopoly, some resources are unlimited. Money, for example, is unlimited; the official rules actually tell you that “If the Bank runs out of money, the Banker may issue as much more as needed by writing on any ordinary paper.” But other resources are finite, including houses, which are the building blocks of the higher-income hotels. The rules say “When the Bank has no houses to sell, players wishing to build must wait for some player to return or sell his/her houses to the Bank before building.” I’ll bet you didn’t know that. I’ll further bet you didn’t know that a completely viable strategy is to buy house after house and never convert them to hotels so that no one else can get any houses or hotels from that point on.
Is that a dick move? Sure is. But is it legal? Is it strategically valuable? Yup on both counts. What it might not be is fun. And fun is one of the main reasons to play a game; I argue here that there is no higher value a game can have. Thus, if a game rule doesn’t let your game be fun, you need to fix that rule. That’s just basic game design.
In the Oregon legislature, fun isn’t the goal; serving one’s constituents is. Here, the Republicans (misguidedly, in my opinion) believe that cap and trade rules will hurt their rural constituents disproportionately. They can’t win if there’s a vote, so they win by suspending the basic functionality of governance. In this case, it seems to have worked. On Wednesday, Senate President Courtney said House Bill 2020 “does not have the votes on the Senate floor.” That’s among Democrats, not Republicans. The GOP standoff obviously galvanized enough constituents of a few Democratic senators to turn them from yeses to nos. This is how climate bills die.
If the Democratic senators don’t want that to be possible, they should schedule only one vote at the start of the next session: a parliamentary vote that makes a quorum equal to half the number of senators. Of course, the GOP senators won’t show up for that either, but it’s one thing to go in hiding from the cops for a few days. It’s quite another to lam out for a year. Force the GOP senators to choose between doing their jobs and living in the state at all. Or (gulp) get arrested for pulling a gun on a cop.
There are 11 fugitive senators out there. Only one is Brian Boquist. The rest might not have the stomach for an extended exile. Even if they do, their voters might decide this is no way to run a railroad and vote them out.
There’s only one risk of this tactic (other than senator-inspired bloodshed): you don’t get to walk out yourself. While the last three walkouts (in 2007 and twice this year) were held by the Republican minority, the one prior to that was a 2001 redistricting protest by Democrats, including then-Minority Leader Kate Brown. Yes, that Kate Brown, the governor currently sending state police out looking for AWOL GOP senators. If Oregon Democrats want to preserve that option for themselves, they can’t suspend it for their foes. Cutting off this safety value comes with risks if the Dems fall out of power.
My strategy would be to bet on Oregon staying blue for the distant future. Oregon can’t be held hostage by its own government. Time to fix the rule. Because you can’t blame the GOP senators for taking the only out they have. If your game’s broken, don’t hate the player. Hate the game.
This is the 39th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, and Joe Biden. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.