by Karl Kurtz
Inspired by the current walkout of Wisconsin Senate Democrats to deny a quorum required by the state constitution for the passage of budget bills, we checked our archives to find out about other legislative boycotts from the past. The history of walkouts by aggrieved parties in state legislatures goes back at least to Abraham Lincoln and the Whig minority in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1839. Rich Miller of the Illinois CapitalFax blog tells this great story, reproduced in ArchPundit in 2003:
Back in 1839, the Illinois House was meeting in special session and hatched a plan to vote on a Democratic bill to require the state’s central bank to make payments in gold or silver, rather than paper money. The Whig Party strongly opposed the idea, and, led by Rep. Abraham Lincoln, decided on the spot that the best way to kill the proposal was to deny the majority Democrats a quorum. So, they left the building, the Second Presbyterian Church in Springfield. But two members were required under law back then to demand that a quorum call be made. Lincoln and another House Whig, Joseph Gillespie, walked into the chambers and made the motion. No quorum was present and a vote couldn’t be taken. The next day, though, Lincoln and the Whigs made the same attempt, but the House Speaker ordered the doors locked behind them and summoned some members who had previously been too ill to attend the session. A quorum was now present.
Lincoln realized the problem and he and the other Whigs jumped out of a window to try to halt the vote, but the quorum was already certified and the Whigs lost. According to Lincoln friend William Herndon, the window jumping had no effect "other than to provide the Democrats with capital material for ridicule."
The most famous recent walkout was by Texas House Democrats in 2003 when they successfully derailed a Republican-sponsored redistricting bill by fleeing to Oklahoma and denying the presence of a quorum in the House. This boycott drew national press in part because of the involvement of then-U.S. House majority leader Tom Delay both in writing the plan and using the federal Department of Homeland Security to find the missing Democrats. A few months later, Senate Democrats made a similar move, fleeing to New Mexico and staying there for more than a month before returning to Austin.
Here are a few other walkouts during the last twenty years from a 2003 survey of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries by my colleague, Brenda Erickson:
- California Assembly, 1994: When the Assembly was evenly split, 40-40, between Democrats and Republicans, the Republican members refused to show up for floor sessions in an effort to prevent Democrats from electing Willie Brown as speaker with less than a majority vote. The Republicans stayed out for several days but finally relented in January 1995. The Democrats proceeded to establish a quorum by "disqualifying" one of the Republicans and elected Brown as speaker on a 40-39 vote.
- Alabama Senate, 1999: With a Democratic majority, newly elected Republican Lt. Governor Steve Windom was the ex-officio president of the Senate at the outset of the 1999 session in March. Serving as chair, he forced through a new set of rules that granted him the bulk of the power in the Senate by unanimous consent, refusing to recognize the objections of majority Democrats. The Democrats walked out and denied a quorum for a period of a week. Once they returned, a series of adjournments was called until Governor Don Siegelman (D) convened a special session at which compromise rules were adopted. The balance of power went to the president pro tem, a Democrat, but the lieutenant governor was given some limited powers of appointment and consultation on bill assignments.
- Nevada Senate, 1999: In a complicated conflict over privatization of workers' compensation, the entire Republican majority left the chamber in the middle of a night session in anger over a speech by a Democrat. The minority Democrats who remained in the chamber issued a call of the house. The sergeant-at-arms was able to round up enough Republicans to make a quorum, and the Democrats proceeded to pass two bills. Later that day, the Republicans returned and, after a motion to reconsider by two of the Republicans who had been compelled to attend, overturned the Senate's actions on those bills.
- Oregon House, 2001: Minority Democrats walked out for five days on a dispute over redistricting. The House continued to meet every day in a futile effort to compel the attendance of missing members, but they were unable to do any other business for lack of a quorum. After the Democats returned to the chamber, the Republican majority eventually passed its redistricting plan, but it was vetoed by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D). Since the Democrats knew all along that they had the governor on their side, the move was largely symbolic to make a point.
- Indiana House, 2005. Minority Democrats boycotted the legislative session at a crucial deadline, denying a quorum and at least temporarily killing 130 bills including two of the Republicans' top priorities. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) said that the Democrats' move ""car bombed" the state's "drive for growth and reform."
The current Wisconsin Senate impasse and the historic Oregon and Indiana House cases involve unusual quorum requirements. In most state legislatures a quorum to do business constitutes a simple majority of the members. In Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, two-thirds of the members make up a quorum, and in Wisconsin, three-fifths of the members are required to act on budget and tax bills. (3/14/11 update: Vermont also has a supermajority quorum requirement of two-thirds of the members for the passage of tax bills.) These supermajority quorum requirements make it more likely that the minority party can circumvent action by the majority.
March 14, 2011 addendum: In reviewing this posting recently, I realized that the walkout by Indiana House Democrats, which started at about the same time as this posting, does not appear on this list of legislative walkouts. For the sake of the historical record, here's a link to the current status of the now four week story of House Democrats holed up in Urbana, Illinois.
January 27, 2012 addendum: Add the Indiana House Democrats walkout of 2012 to the list of legislative walkouts.
Related later postings: "Sleeping-in at the Capitol", "Majority Rule and Minority Rights: Perspectives on Legislative Obstruction in Wisconsin and Indiana"and "An Expert's Favorite Filibuster: The Rhode Island Senate in 1923-24".
Art credit: LincolnStudies.com