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?