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Quorum Busters

By Peter Carlson
9/28/2017 • American History Magazine

Sometimes politicians go to extremes to avoid having to sit down and be counted.

When the Democrats wanted Abraham Lincoln to sit down and be counted, Lincoln stood up, scooted to a window and jumped out.

It was 1840, and Lincoln was an Illinois state representative in the midst of a nasty political squabble involving the state bank. The Democrats wanted to close the bank. Lincoln and his fellow Whigs hoped to save it. The Democrats had enough votes to win. So the Whigs resorted to a parliamentary trick. They hightailed it out of the chamber, leaving the House without a quorum—the minimum number of representatives required to conduct official business. Lincoln and his friend Joseph Gillespie stayed behind to demand a quorum count if the Democrats moved for a vote.

Irked, the Democrats dispatched the sergeant-at-arms to troll local saloons, where he collared enough malingering Whigs to restore a quorum. “There was great excitement in the House,” Gillespie later recalled. “We soon discovered that several Whigs had been caught and brought in, and that the plan had been spoiled; and we—Lincoln and I—determined to leave the hall, and, going to the door, found it locked, and then raised a window and jumped out.”

Lincoln’s leap out the window failed to stop the vote. The Democrats declared that a quorum had been present—at least before Lincoln’s auto-defenestration—so they held the vote, and won.

It wasn’t Honest Abe’s finest hour, and he didn’t enjoy talking about it. But the story was resurrected this winter, when Democratic legislators in Wisconsin and Indiana fled from their states for weeks in order to deny quorums and thus prevent votes on Republican bills designed to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights. Ultimately, those fleeing Democrats were no more successful than Lincoln—both states passed the bills the Democrats opposed— but the absconding pols did succeed in reminding their fellow Americans of the long, colorful history of quorum-busting.

Politics isn’t pretty, and sometimes politicians who know their side will lose a vote try to prevent that vote. One way to do that is by filibustering— talking a bill to death. Another method is fleeing to prevent a quorum. Of course, quorum-busting is annoying to majorities, which is why many legislative bodies, including the U.S. Senate, have rules allowing the majority to send law enforcement officials out to round up the absent members. When that happens, things can get delightfully ludicrous.

Late on the night of February 25, 1988, Republicans hoping to kill a campaign-finance bill fled the U.S. Senate to prevent a quorum. Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd ordered sergeant-at-arms Henry Giugni to “arrest the absent senators and bring them to the chamber.” Giugni spotted Sen. Steve Symms of Idaho but Symms skedaddled fast enough to escape. Then a cleaning woman revealed that Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon was hiding in his office. When Giugni and two aides used a skeleton key to enter the locked office, Packwood tried to slam the door in their faces. Overpowered and arrested, he agreed to walk to the Capitol but demanded that the cops carry him into the chamber. He arrived, feet first, at 1:17 in the morning.

Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah grumbled that the sight of cops carrying Packwood made the Senate look like a “banana republic.” But Packwood was less outraged. “I rather enjoyed it,” he said. “I instructed four of my staff to get a sedan chair.”

Packwood’s dramatic entrance was the first time a senator was hauled into the chamber since 1942, when quorum-busters tried to kill a bill to outlaw the poll tax, which Southern states used to prevent poor people, especially blacks, from voting. Democratic Majority Leader Alben Barkley sent sergeant-at-arms Chesley Jurney out to round up five absent Southerners. One of Jurney’s assistants found Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee in a hotel and brought him back to the Senate.

Red-faced and irate, McKellar vowed to get revenge, and he did. He blocked Jurney’s re-appointment as sergeant-at-arms and told President Franklin Roosevelt that he’d better not even think about appointing Barkley to the Supreme Court because McKellar would make sure the Senate wouldn’t confirm him. Which shows just how far a senator will go to protest being forced to vote on a bill designed to protect the voting rights of poor people.

The U.S. Senate isn’t the only venue for colorful quorum-busting efforts. Similar antics occur periodically in state legislatures across America.

In 1911—when U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures, not voters —all 15 Republicans fled the West Virginia Senate to prevent a quorum on a vote to fill the state’s two U.S. Senate seats. They snuck away and caught a train to Cincinnati, where they spent a week in a posh hotel, feted by Charles F. Taft, a local newspaper publisher who happened to be the brother of William Howard Taft, the Republican president of the United States. The stalemate ended with a deal: The Democrats got to pick the two U.S. senators while the GOP got to pick the next president of the state Senate.

In 1920, when the constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote had passed 35 of the 36 states necessary for ratification, two dozen members of the Tennessee House of Representatives fled to Decatur, Ala., in the hopes of preventing Tennessee from making woman suffrage a reality. They failed. Tennessee ratified the amendment, and it became the law of the land. Today, women not only vote but also serve in legislatures—and occasionally participate in quorum-busting road trips, just like the guys.

Perhaps the most preposterous quorum-busting episode in American history occurred in Rhode Island in 1924. At the time, Rhode Island state senators were elected from districts based on geography, not population, which meant that rural towns with few people had equal representation with densely populated cities. Senate Democrats, who tended to represent urban districts, pushed for a state constitutional convention to remedy that inequity, but the Republicans, who tended to represent rural districts, defeated the bill. The Democrats responded with a filibuster that blocked all legislation, including the state’s appropriation bill, causing state employees to go without pay.

The filibuster lasted for months, abetted by the state’s lieutenant governor, a Democrat, who presided over the Senate and refused to recognize any Republican senators. In June, after nearly six months of stalemate, things got ugly.

“One day last week, as the Senate was about to open, and the Lieutenant Governor was walking up the aisle,” Time magazine reported, “the President pro tem of the Senate, a Republican, mounted the rostrum and attempted to call the meeting to order and proceed with the Appropriation Bill. As the reading clerk began to read, a Democratic Senator snatched the bill from his hands. A general battle of fisticuffs ensued which the Sheriff was obliged to quell.”

A few days later, the Republicans tried a new tactic—gas warfare. A Republican placed a rag soaked in poison behind the rostrum. As the gas spread, several senators collapsed and the rest scurried. When the chamber was aired out and the Senate called back into session, the Republicans boycotted, claiming fear of “probable violence.” They fled to a hotel in Rutland, Mass., and stayed there for six months. Meanwhile, a consortium of banks lent the state enough money to pay its bills until the next Senate—which was overwhelmingly Republican—took office and finally passed an appropriations bill.

“The ‘stink bomb’ incident, drew national attention,” the Providence Journal reported “and made Rhode Island a laughingstock.” Of course, Rhode Island isn’t the only state legislature to claim to the title of national laughingstock. In 2003, it was Texas.

Guided by Tom Delay—a Republican congressman and the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives—Texas Republicans won control of the state legislature and decided to draw a new map of congressional districts to make sure Republicans won more seats. Naturally, Democrats weren’t happy. More than 50 House Democrats fled to Ardmore, Okla., and stayed for five days, long enough to kill the bill during that legislative session. When Republican Governor Rick Perry called a special legislative session to revive the redistricting bill, 11 Democrats in the state Senate prevented a quorum by fleeing to Albuquerque, N.M., where they remained for 46 days.

During that protracted donnybrook, both sides tried stunts to get their message out. The Democrats in Albuquerque staged a zany senatorial shirt-ironing contest, and Republicans in Austin put the faces of the missing on milk cartons. Ultimately, the Republicans won and passed their redistricting plan, although Delay was later convicted of money laundering in connection with a fundraising scheme to win that Republican legislative majority.

This winter, when Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats fled to a motel in Illinois to bust a quorum, a Texas Democrat who had endured the 46 days of exile in Albuquerque offered some hard-earned advice. “If you are going to be out for more than two weeks,” said Leticia Van de Putte, “call your spouse for conjugal visits.”

Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have said it better.

 

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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