It’s becoming a trend: Democratic members of a state legislature, rather than risk defeat in a roll call vote, take flight and hide in a nearby state. Last week all Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate fled en masse to Illinois in order to block a quorum on a GOP proposal to rein in public employee compensation. No doubt inspired by this turn of events, virtually all Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives on Tuesday morning staged their own exodus in order to prevent a vote on a Right to Work bill. The whereabouts of the Indiana lawmakers, like their Wisconsin brethren, remain unknown. Whenever they come out of hiding, the damage these lawmakers and their union allies are doing to democratic process is going to linger a lot longer.
The hijinx of Wisconsin and Indiana Democratic lawmakers ought to be the stuff of late-night TV comics. For now, it’s the stuff of law enforcement. Earlier today Wisconsin state troopers reportedly were dispatched in an effort to locate at least one of 14 Democratic State Senators hiding out of state for at least a week for the purpose of circumventing a floor vote on Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to curb public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights. The state’s labor public- and private- sector labor unions have led an ongoing takeover of the Wisconsin statehouse in Madison as a defiant show of solidarity with the AWOL lawmakers.
These are strange times for democracy. Outnumbered Democrats in a legislature don’t like certain legislation; recognize that their Republican opponents lack enough members to constitute a quorum; and then exit the state to create a stalemate, leaving everyone guessing as to their whereabouts. Unlike a filibuster, where the intent is to debate and potentially amend pending legislation, these impromptu vacations are an abdication of political responsibility. What, after all, is the point of electing representatives who refuse to represent?
If Wisconsin leads the way, Indiana isn’t far behind. What triggered the exodus by lawmakers in the latter state was the strong possibility of passage of a Right to Work measure, House Bill 1468. Like all other state Right to Work laws, the Indiana proposal would bar a union from inserting clauses into contracts that force employers to fire nonunion workers who fail to pay the union “agency fees” in lieu of joining. These laws derive their authority from Section 14(b) of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. Thus far, 22 states have enacted Right to Work laws, most of them having done so decades ago. Organized labor can be counted on to fight any Right to Work proposal tooth and nail, knowing their bargaining power, and dues collections, would be diluted if individual workers were exempt from having to pay into union coffers. The last state to pass Right to Work legislation was Oklahoma back in 2001, and even there, the State spent two years in court fending off union challenges to the voter referendum (known as State Question 695) authorizing the law. In recent years, a number of Republicans in Congress, led by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have been trying to create a national Right to Work law, but their efforts have gone nowhere.
Democratic lawmakers, like their union allies, also go the extra mile in opposing the Right to Work principle. In Indiana it’s more like extra miles. When that state’s House of Representatives came into session this past Tuesday morning, only two of the 40 Democrat members showed up. Where did the other 38 go? According to media reports, they were headed toward (or were already in) Illinois and/or Kentucky, each with a Democratic governor. Prompting this flight was that the previous day, a Republican-controlled House Committee approved Right to Work legislation. In response, the Democrats caucused into the night, deciding in the end that it would be better to leave the state to prevent a quorum from materializing for a roll call vote. Indiana law stipulates that the House must have two-thirds of all members present to achieve a quorum. As there are 100 members of the Indiana House of Representatives, 60 Republican and 40 Democrat, a minimum of 67 members had to be present. Unfortunately, only 58 legislators were present. The House, unable to conduct official business, disbanded.
In Indiana, a reuniting is more likely than in Wisconsin. Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, while supportive of Right to Work legislation in theory, opposes it in practice. He argues that the issue needs more debate and that no Republican had explicitly campaigned on it last year. He already has announced that he would not send state troopers after the renegade members. “The activities of today are a perfectly legitimate part of the process,” he remarked. “Even the smallest minority, and that’s what we’ve heard from in the last couple days, has every right to express the strength of its views and I salute those who did.” The governor’s overly conciliatory outreach, predictably, scored no points with organized labor. On Monday and Tuesday, an estimated 4,000 Auto Workers, Steelworkers and other union members held a rally at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, chanting such slogans as “Ditch Mitch” and “Save Our Families.”
The “flee-bagging” tactic may well spread elsewhere. Currently 14 states beyond Indiana and Wisconsin are considering legislation that would limit union benefits and/or collective bargaining power. They are: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington (state) and West Virginia. In any number of these states, supporters have planned or held rallies against the measures. But public support might be less than deep. According to a Rasmussen Poll conducted late last week and released Monday, 48 percent of likely U.S. voters sided with Wisconsin Governor Walker whereas only 38 percent sided with his union opponents; the other 14 percent were undecided. And 50 percent of the respondents favored reducing their home state’s government payroll by one percent a year for 10 years either by reducing the work force or reducing their pay. Only 28 percent opposed such action.
It is voters who provide the ultimate verdict on fleeing legislators and the interest groups supporting them. Bottling up legislation via mass interstate flight might win short-term sympathy, but in the long run it is corrosive of democracy and likely embarrassing to residents of affected states. It’s a mark of the lack of confidence that Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin and Indiana have in their views that they would flee rather than debate and negotiate. Perhaps the best summation came from one Mary Magdalen Moser, daughter of late Wisconsin Senate Majority Floor Leader William Moser (D-Milwaukee):
As the daughter of former Wisconsin Senate Minority Floor Leader William R. Moser, I am ashamed of the actions taken by the minority party to subvert our system of government by boycotting its legitimate processes. Anarchy is undemocratic, and I know that my Dad is spinning in his grave right now…I do not support refusing to participate, because that will not solve any of the issues facing our state.
One hopes that wherever voters stand on Right to Work and other labor issues, they remember those in their respective legislatures who stuck around for a debate – and who did not.