Passage of a climate change bill seemed assured last week in Oregon, where Democrats control the Legislature. So the outnumbered Republicans in the state Senate, who deeply oppose the measure but could not make a difference with their votes, decided to hit the road instead and gum up the works with their absence.
The tactic is called quorum-busting because it leaves the majority party unable to muster the minimum attendance to hold a vote that it would otherwise be sure to win. Though considered an extreme measure, quorum-busting has a long, colorful history that includes Democrats rooming together at a Comfort Inn and a young state legislator named Abraham Lincoln jumping out a window.
Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has sent state troopers to try to herd the absent Republicans back to the Capitol, and Democratic lawmakers have vowed to impose fines on their truant colleagues. As of Tuesday, they were still AWOL.
Over the years, episodes of running from office have included brief walkouts, long stays in the bathroom and lengthy trips across state lines. The tactic has been used by members of everything from a university student government to the U.S. Senate. Perhaps more than anything else, what it has generally done is cement partisan acrimony. Here are some famous examples.
Illinois, 1840: A Hasty Jump
Long before he was president, Lincoln served in the Illinois House of Representatives as a fiercely partisan Whig and once jumped out a first-floor window to try to stop a vote.
Lincoln’s leap came at the end of a legislative session, when he and his fellow Whigs were trying to buy time to save a state-run bank from being shut down. Democrats, who controlled the chamber, were not fans of the bank and scheduled a vote to adjourn that would seal the bank’s fate. Lincoln, who had emerged as a leader in the Whig Party, came up with a last-ditch plan to open a window and jump out to deny the Democrats a quorum.
“He was just coming into his own at that point” as a politician, said Wayne Temple, a Lincoln historian who described the hasty exit in one of his books on the president.
Lincoln’s jump turned out to be futile. He had already been marked present for the quorum, according to Samuel Wheeler, state historian of Illinois, so the session ended despite his objections.
“It’s not an episode that he’s very proud of later,” Wheeler said.
Texas, 2003: A Painful Retreat
The “Texas 11,” a group of Democratic state senators who were deeply opposed to a Republican redistricting plan, succeeded in delaying a vote on the plan for weeks by fleeing to New Mexico, despite threats of arrest and fines.
But their flight from Austin, the state capital, ended when the Texas 11 became the Texas 10. One member of the crew who reportedly grew frustrated with the tactic and the group’s lack of an exit plan returned home. That left the Democrats without quorum-busting numbers.
“We’re very angry at him,” one of the 10 stalwarts, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, said at the time.
Adding to the political pain, Zaffirini broke her shoulder at an Albuquerque hockey rink while on the legislative lam.
Indiana, 2011: Political Point Scoring
The Democrats of the Indiana House lived at the Comfort Inn in Urbana, Illinois, for weeks. They paired up with roommates, ate continental breakfasts and discussed political strategy.
Back in Indianapolis, Republicans were trying to push through a bill curbing the power of labor unions, among other bills. They threatened the Democrats with fines for staying away.
State Rep. Ed DeLaney, one of the fleeing Democrats, said the severity of the policy disagreements with Republicans led to the decision to leave the state.
“It was a very difficult decision — very difficult — and it got more difficult every day,” DeLaney said in an interview this week. “You only have so much ammunition, and this is a way to spend an awful lot of your ammunition on one point, and draw a lot of criticism in the process.”
Democrats succeeded in stopping the labor bill that year, but the victory was short-lived. Republicans passed a similar measure in 2012.
All these years later, DeLaney said he still has Comfort Inn loyalty-program reward points to spare.
U.S. Senate, 1988: Dragged in Feet First
Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., was hiding in his office, trying to avoid a quorum call. Henry K. Giugni, the sergeant-at-arms, was searching the Capitol grounds, armed with a list of missing Republican senators and orders to arrest them.
At stake: a Democratic-backed campaign spending bill that Republicans had been filibustering.
After checking several senators’ offices without success, Giugni and a half-dozen members of the Capitol Police arrived at Packwood’s door. The senator tried to keep them from shoving it open.
“It was their mass against my mass,” Packwood said at the time. Their mass won. Packwood was arrested and hauled into the Senate chamber, feet first.
His Republican colleagues were not amused.
“The knock on the door and the forceful entry into Sen. Packwood’s office smack of Nazi Germany, smack of Communist Russia,” one Republican senator said.
Wisconsin, 2011: ‘Not a Regular Tactic’
State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, had just taken office when the Republicans who controlled the state Legislature introduced a bill to strip power from public-sector labor unions.
With no other means to block the bill, he and his entire caucus fled across the state line to Rockford, Illinois, the first of many places they would stay while tens of thousands of protesters packed the Wisconsin Capitol to voice their opposition to the bill.
“It’s disgraceful that people who are paid to be here have decided to skip town,” Michael Ellis, a Republican and the Senate president at the time, said when his Democratic colleagues left.
Larson, who slept at hotels and at friends’ houses in several Illinois cities, said he monitored developments in Madison on Twitter — he was one of only a few Senate Democrats using the social media platform back then — and waited to see whether legislative leaders could negotiate a solution.
In the end, Republicans found a procedural way to pass the parts of the bill limiting unions without coaxing the Democrats back to Madison.
Larson called the Democrats’ flight strategy “extreme” but said it was defensible in rare circumstances. In the years since, he said, some constituents have asked whether he would be willing to flee again to slow down legislation that they oppose. His answer has always been no.
“It’s not a regular tactic that you pull, because it shuts down the function of the state,” Larson said this week. “It has to be something that is very important to the future.”