A State Held Hostage

Why the events in Indiana are more troubling than the recently concluded battle in Wisconsin.

When Wisconsin Democratic state legislators fled their state to try and derail a bill they didn’t like, they received national attention. While that battle is effectively over, except for the inevitable follow-on skirmishes in court, another Democratic walkout is entering its fifth week in the state of Indiana. In some ways, the ongoing situation in the Hoosier State is more troubling than the recently concluded battle in Wisconsin, largely because of the national implications.

Both parties have used walkouts in the past when they found themselves in the minority in order to try and force the majority party back to the bargaining table. However, legislators have traditionally used the tactic on the rarest of occasions and have only targeted a single, specific issue that was deemed to be of vital importance to them. The Wisconsin walkout arguably followed this pattern. Democrats fled to Illinois solely to avoid a vote on public union collective bargaining and, when the issue was ultimately resolved in their absence, they returned to do their jobs.

The situation in Indiana is a bit different, for a couple of reasons. In Wisconsin, the lack of a quorum only meant that the legislature could not pass financial bills. They could, and eventually did, pass the bill that effectively ended public union collective bargaining without a quorum. This is not the case in Indiana. A quorum is necessary to pass any kind of bill in the Hoosier State. Thirty-nine of forty House Democrats have been holed up in a hotel in Urbana, Illinois for over a month now, meaning that that Indiana House cannot find a quorum, leaving the sixty-strong Republican contingent in the House powerless to do anything.

The other difference in Indiana is that the minority party hasn’t run away in order to protest a single, targeted issue. Instead, Indiana Democrats are effectively trying to derail vast swaths of the majority party’s entire legislative agenda. This is something new and, potentially, something dangerous. When the nuclear option of shutting down a legislature is limited to the occasional, high-profile issue, it’s an annoying and childish event, but we can probably live with such isolated incidents. If the walkout strategy somehow starts to be viewed as a legitimate legislative tactic that can be used to undermine the majority party’s efforts to implement their basic agenda, then what’s the point of having an election at all?

Republicans enjoy a majority in both the Indiana Senate and the Indiana House. The governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, is a Republican as well. The GOP in the Hoosier State clearly feels that the electorate has given their party a mandate to institute the kind of reforms that Republican candidates promised. This Republican program for Indiana includes turning it into a right to work state, balancing the budget and expanding school voucher and charter school programs. It’s also time for the legislature to redraw congressional district maps in the state, using 2010 Census data. Since Republicans control both the legislative and executive branches of state government, that map isn’t going to be very helpful to the Democratic party in the state, no more than the new Illinois map – where Democrats control the legislative and executive branches of state government – will be Republican Party-friendly.

Indiana Dems initially fled to Illinois over a proposed Republican bill that would have made Indiana a right to work state.  Governor Daniels’ support for the measure was always a bit lukewarm, so it’s not clear that the bill would have made it through anyway. Nonetheless, thirty-nine Democratic members of the Indiana House ran away from their elected duties rather than debate and vote on the bill. In response, Republicans decided to return the proposal to committee for further study, thus taking the issue off of the table. Having won the first hand of legislative poker rather easily, though they held nothing more than the political equivalent of a pair of fives in their hand, Indiana Democrats then decided to go “all in” rather than collect their winnings and drive home.

The stand-off in Indiana is no longer about the right to work versus forced unionism. Nor is it about cutting state spending, reforming the state’s educational system or how the state’s map will be redrawn. The stand-off is rather about all of these issues and a whole lot more. Democrats and Republicans in the Hoosier State are essentially engaged in a game of chicken. Democrats are trying to see just how many concessions they can wring out of their colleagues across the aisle before the political and personal prices they must pay for abandoning their duties and homes grows too high to pay. Republicans, on the other hand, must gauge how to best entice the opposition back to work without appearing to concede to blackmail.

At this point, it’s hard to guess which side will blink first. But, whichever strategy is ultimately successful in Indiana may very well set the stage for the inevitable battles to come in more and more states across the country.