Oregon Walkout Reflects a Growing Trend. Here’s Why Lawmakers Leave.

By: - June 27, 2019 12:00 am

Republican protesters outside the Oregon State Capitol in Salem show solidarity with the 11 Senate Republicans who fled the state to prevent a vote on a carbon emissions bill. State lawmakers have been using this tactic for centuries. Sarah Zimmerman/The Associated Press

Oregon Democrats were on track to pass sweeping legislation this session that would reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions. But then Republican lawmakers threw a political Hail Mary last week. They left the state.

Their play might have worked.

Senate Democratic leaders announced earlier this week that they do not have enough votes to pass the legislation. Eleven Senate Republicans are still missing, pending further negotiations.

With any walkout, a large question looms over the political protest: Will it work?

Used by countless state lawmakers around the country for the past two centuries, walking out grinds legislative action to a halt. Without enough lawmakers present in the Capitol, legislative chambers can’t reach a quorum. The gamble is whether the maneuver will work or whether it will deal the lawmakers in flight a hefty political price.

As state politics become more partisan and lawmakers are less willing to negotiate legislation, walkouts may be used more frequently. The tactic, which at times gains national attention, can run out the clock on legislative sessions and stall bills that otherwise would have passed.

For now, some of the self-exiled Republicans are trying to make the case from their Idaho hideout that the bill would take money from the pockets of Oregonians. The protesting Republicans want the bill to go to voters as a ballot initiative.

“It’s about standing up for Oregonians that do not have a voice in the matter,” said Kate Gillem, communications director for the Oregon Senate Republican Caucus.

Individual senators would not comment, instead forwarding questions to Gillem.

While the gamble may have worked in Oregon in the short run, walkouts can be politically costly plays that rarely work in the long run, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who studied the 2011 legislative walkout in the Hoosier State.

Their fate often depends on the kind of walkout, he said.

The most common are ones that last for a few hours or days. Members of a caucus won’t show up to a committee hearing or floor votes, preventing a quorum. It sends a message they’re serious about an issue being debated, Downs said. It rarely gets much press and can be an effective negotiating tool.

The second and more rare walkouts are ones like that in Oregon, where lawmakers flee the state for several weeks or months. These large events use a lot of political capital and show voters that those lawmakers might be sore losers and unwilling to negotiate, Downs said.

“If you’re using this option, you’re probably not in a good bargaining position to begin with,” he said.

At the same time, it might fire up their base, showing they refuse to give up their principles.

Both types of walkouts should be used with caution and can have widespread consequences for the lawmakers involved, he said.

The challenge, as Downs outlined it: “There are ways to walk out and there are ways to walk out.”

A Long History of Walkouts

Politicians have been dodging votes for the past two centuries.

When Abraham Lincoln was a state representative in Illinois, he in December 1840 jumped out of a first-floor window to avoid a quorum call on a Democratic banking bill he and fellow Whigs vehemently opposed. His stunt, however, failed to block the vote and earned him and his “flying brethren” that new nickname by Democrats in the state Capitol.

For the next 150 years, walking out was commonly used in state legislatures across the county. There have been several high-profile walkouts even over the last three decades.

In 1994, California Assembly Republicans walked out of the chamber to a hotel across the street to prevent a quorum that would have allowed Democrat Willie Brown to get re-elected speaker. The three-day exile ran out the clock on the legislative session. Brown won in the end: Two Republicans defected and he gained the speakership again two months later.

Texas lawmakers absconded to two different states in 2003. In an attempt at blocking Republican-drawn redistricting, 11 Texas Senate Democrats fled to New Mexico for 46 days. In the House, 51 Democrats holed up in Oklahoma for several days. Still, the redistricting plan passed soon after the Democrats returned.

Even in Oregon, there have been two major walkouts in the past two decades, one by Democrats in 2001 over redistricting and another by Republicans in 2007 over a tax deal.

More recently, walking out has been an essential tool for Democrats defending public unions.

In 2011, Democratic lawmakers from Indiana and Wisconsin both fled to Illinois to avoid casting votes for Republican legislation.

While the three-week exile of 14 Wisconsin Senate Democrats failed to stop a bill on collective bargaining, Democrats in Indiana were able to secure some concessions.

One bill that would have barred public employees from paying union dues was removed from the legislative docket because of the walkout. Several other bills, including one involving student vouchers, were watered down.

At the time, Indiana House Democratic leader Patrick Bauer told the press the Illinois exile was a “timeout” that “gave Hoosiers an opportunity to examine the radical agenda being attempted in Indiana and to speak out.”

It might have had more far-reaching consequences, however.

The Political Fallout

Lawmakers in Indiana used this tactic for 1991 and 2001 redistricting fights.

But today, eight years after the 2011 walkout, Ed DeLaney, one of the Democratic lawmakers who holed up in an Urbana, Illinois, hotel for nearly six weeks, has some regrets.

“You only have so much authority, so much good will to use,” DeLaney said. “The question on this tactic is it burns up a lot of good will.”

Democrats chose to go all-in on labor issues, leaving them without much political capital to negotiate effectively on a later redistricting fight, DeLaney said. The move would cost many of them their jobs. Democrats lost nine seats in the Indiana House in the 2012 general election. DeLaney kept his seat.

With diminished Democratic political power in the state, Republicans were able to draw congressional and legislative districts that have made it almost impossible for Democrats to make substantial gains for the past eight years.

“That worked out as badly as it could,” DeLaney lamented.

The walkout was one of several factors — including the new gerrymandered districts, a national tea party wave and a backlash to higher state property taxes — that led to widespread Democratic losses in Indiana, said Downs of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Republican lawmakers eventually passed the “right-to-work” legislation a year later. The tactic merely delayed the inevitable.

In Wisconsin, two Republican senators lost their seats to Democrats in recall elections in the months following the fight over public unions. Republicans, however, kept control of the state Senate. Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, also survived a recall effort a year later.

While some might contend a walkout could energize a political base, Downs said, the move could send a negative message to voters that lawmakers are unwilling to do their jobs.

There also might be financial repercussions.

DeLaney and some of his fellow Indiana Democrats chose not to accept a per diem from the state when they fled to Illinois, avoiding a financial penalty. But for other lawmakers who did, they collectively racked up more than $233,000 in fines. In 2013, the state supreme court ruled they had to abide by the fines.

Republican leaders in Texas and Wisconsin threatened Democrats with fines for their protests but soon abandoned the punishment.

Meanwhile in Oregon, Democratic lawmakers claim the absent Republicans could be fined $500 per day if they don’t return. Gillem, the spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Caucus, said she doesn’t know which statute would allow for that fine.

For now, it’s unclear when those 11 Oregon Republican senators are coming home.

Downs thinks walkouts may become more common.

“Because state legislatures are becoming more partisan, bringing the hammer to something that doesn’t need a hammer is the answer,” he said. “It doesn’t make it the right tool, though.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.