When Politicians Run Away: Wisconsin Union Showdown

Wisconsin Democrats won President Obama’s attention and inspired other states by bolting the capital to protest a crackdown on unions. David Graham on the history of the political walkout.

You can’t win a vote when you’ve got fewer votes than your opponents. But Wisconsin Democrats are discovering a centuries-old corollary truth this week: you can’t lose a vote if you don’t let it happen. And that’s why 14 of them have fled out of Madison and across the border into Illinois, hoping to prevent a vote that would cut benefits for public-sector workers and curtail the right to collective bargaining.

There aren’t enough Democrats to block the plan in the state Senate, but without their presence at the capitol, there isn’t a quorum in the body, and without a quorum the Republican minority can’t vote on the bill. It’s a desperate tactic, but it’s hardly a novel one. Quorum-breaking is a venerable—if not exactly venerated—tradition in American politics that goes back as far as the Continental Congress.

It’s really just another tool in the minority toolbox—a sibling to the stalling tactic of proposing amendments and a cousin to that peculiar U.S. Senate obstructionist tradition, the filibuster. It carries distinct risks, since legislators who try it are literally running away from their jobs. But it can also be an effective way to buy time, since state police can’t drag legislators over state lines where they don’t have jurisdiction. And the example being set in Wisconsin could well stir copycats across the country, as budget battles grow ever more heated. In Ohio and Indiana, similar benefit battles loom, and both sides are watching their counterparts in Wisconsin to figure out what tactics work.

“It’s odd that it doesn’t happen more often,” says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow and Congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. The situation in Wisconsin may be atypical—“This may be somewhat unusual, getting the president of the United States to weigh in on a legislative matter,” she says—and it might not gain additional votes. But it is a way for Democrats to influence the public mood and perhaps persuade Gov. Scott Walker and state Senate Republicans to tone down the bill. “Expanding the scope of conflict makes it much harder for Republicans to keep control of the story,” Binder says.

While the temptation to follow Wisconsin’s lead may be growing, the list of notable uses of quorum-breaking in American history is still rather short. A look at some of the highlights:

1. Thomas Burke’s Departure

As long as Americans have had legislatures, they’ve had disagreements and desperate minorities. In 1778, the Continental Congress was considering a critical letter to Gen. George Washington. Thomas Burke, a delegate from North Carolina, opposed the missive and stalked out of the congress, garnering him much abuse from his frustrated—but ultimately powerless—colleagues. North Carolinians, however, rallied around Burke because he justified his move by declaring that his allegiance was to his state and would not be weakened by unreasonable moves of a tyrannical central government.

A dozen legislators hid out in a tiny apartment, using coded telephone signals as Texas Rangers fanned across the state to find them.

2. Abraham Lincoln’s Acrobatics

Before Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and a staid statesman, he was a Whig and a rabble-rouser. Fighting a Democratic bill in Springfield to make payments only in gold or silver rather than paper money, Lincoln led Whigs to walk out and head off a quorum, as Karl Kurtz of the National Council of State Legislatures recalls. It worked one day, but the following day, Democrats were able to get back on track when Lincoln and a colleague entered the chamber to make the required motion for a quorum call. By the time the Whigs realized the trick, they were locked in. An attempt to dive out the window succeeded only in making them laughingstocks, and the bill passed.

3. “The Disappearing Quorum”

Late in the 1800s, the U.S. House had become a hotbed of obstruction, much to the chagrin of Speaker Thomas Reed, an Ohio Republican, who set out to reform the rules. One favorite tactic was for representatives to come to the chamber but refuse to answer a roll call. Finally, in 1890, a furious Reed announced that if the clerk could see a member—rather than just hear his response—he would be counted toward a quorum. “Members started diving under their desks and running for the cloakrooms and stuff” to avoid being counted, says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. Despite heated objections, Reed’s reform stuck, and the House minority lost a valuable tool.

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4. Texas’ Killer Bees

Texas requires a two-thirds majority for a quorum, making mischief an especially attractive prospect there. In 1979, 12 liberal Democrats had already been nicknamed the “ Killer Bees” for frequently blocking legislation. Their greatest moment came when they decided to flee to stop a bill to change the date of the state’s primary. The dozen hid out in a tiny apartment, using coded telephone signals as Texas Rangers fanned across the state to find them. Although one senator left and was captured, the others held out long enough to force the lieutenant governor to drop the proposal.

5. Bob Packwood vs. the Sergeant at Arms

In the midst of a filibuster showdown in 1988, Republicans irked Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd by refusing to come to the floor. But Byrd, the legendary master of parliamentary tactics, was the wrong man to cross: he dug out an obscure rule that allowed him to call all members to the chamber at 12:30 a.m. under penalty of arrest by the Sergeant at Arms. Some members literally ran away; another, Oregon’s Bob Packwood, injured his arm while trying to barricade himself in his office. Packwood was eventually convinced to come to the Senate, but he insisted that they carry him across the threshold.

6. The Texas Eleven

During a fight over redistricting, Democratic members of the state house and senate learned the lessons of the Killer Bees—and fled the Lone Star State altogether. A Republican plan, which Democrats derided as gerrymandering, would have eliminated five Democratic seats in Congress. It started in May 2003, when 51 House Democrats skipped town and went to Oklahoma, killing the plan. Republicans tried again later in the session, and 11 Democratic senators headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Speaking with Newsweek on Friday, Senator Mario Gallegos recalled a James Bond-like scenario. Senators had a plan in the event they had to flee, and kept bags packed in their offices. After a signal from their leader, all 11 met at a rendezvous point, where they were hustled into Chevy Suburbans and taken to the Austin airport to board two private planes—still unaware where they were going. Once in the air, they learned they were headed to Albuquerque, despite an order from the ground to return to Austin. “Obviously we told the pilots not to,” Gallegos says. “I said, ‘Oh hell, are we going to have two fighter jets force us to go back to Austin?’” The “Texas Eleven” held out for 46 days until Sen. John Whitmire decided he’d had enough and returned to Austin, making a quorum possible. What lessons can the runaways offer their counterparts in Wisconsin on their third day away? Gallegos says he doesn’t regret his 2003 run even though it ultimately failed, and he offered some moral support to the Wisconsin delegation. “If they feel strong about their position, they need to stay right where they’re at,” he says. “If they feel they’re representing our district, they need to stay right where they’re at.” But Gallegos’ colleague Juan Hinojosa, another member of the Texas Eleven, spoke of a wearying ordeal and was a bit warier. “You’ve got to compromise while you’re out of state,” he says. “Keep the lines of communication open.”

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.