Stateline Story

AWOL Texas Lawmakers Enrich Legislative Lore

  • May 16, 2003
  • By Jason White and Kathleen Murphy

Texas lawmakers who fled to neighboring Oklahoma to deprive the legislature of a quorum a move that succeeded in killing a redistricting bill wrote the latest chapter of a long comic history of legislative shenanigans.

Lone Star State Republicans wanted to redraw U.S. House districts to make it likely the GOP would pick up seats, but 51 Democrats thwarted their effort by sneaking off to Ardmore, Okla., preventing the quorum needed to conduct business.

The roaming Democrats returned home early Friday morning declaring victory after the bill died Thursday night.

The groups' tactic drew criticism and became fodder for jokes. But it worked. And it's one example of the kinds of political gamesmanship that has long been a part of the legislative process.

In 1999, Alabama's former Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, used a chamber pot in the legislature to avoid being absent for even a few minutes in the midst of stalemate over operating rules.

Windom, presiding over a thin majority in the state Senate, said that Democrats would have taken over if he had left even to visit the bathroom.

"It was very embarrassing. But I knew I could stand the laughter better than I could look myself in the mirror and know that I had deserted the post that you elected me to as lieutenant governor," Windom later told The Birmingham News.

A survey of state legislative clerks conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides a wealth of other examples.

In 1963, California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh locked GOP members in the chamber overnight because they refused to vote on the state budget, Brenda Erickson, an NCSL legislative procedure expert, said.

In 1980, Oklahoma troopers were asked to round up state lawmakers after they forgot to take action on legislation that would approve a contract for prison renovation. The oversight could have cost the state $1 million, The Oklahoman reported.

In 1925, a redistricting dispute led Democratic Indiana legislators to walk out and go to Ohio. Democrats left again over the same issue in 1995, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette said.

The NCSL survey showed walkouts also have happened in Nevada, Oregon and Pennsylvania:

  • Nevada Republican senators left in 1999 over privatization of workmen's compensation.
  • Oregon Senate Democrats walked out over naming a state service award for a former senator in 1995, and House Democrats walked out over redistricting in 2001. 
  • Pennsylvania Democratic senators left the floor in the 1980s over redistricting, but the quorum was unaffected, and the bill passed.

Walkouts are a rare occurrence, said Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics.

"There are not many cases where legislators collectively as a party or as a large group say, I'm going to take my marbles and go home.' And I guess we should be thankful that it doesn't happen. How could we conduct government unless there was some agreement as to the rules of the game?" Rosenthal said.

A walkout is more likely to happen in states where political party representation is evenly divided, or in Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas where a two-thirds quorum is required to conduct legislative business, NCSL's Erickson said.

Modern legislative theatrics pale in comparison to mischief already in the history books.

Georgia's case of multiple governors in 1947 was the ultimate power struggle. The state legislature elected Herman Talmadge as governor, but incumbent Gov. Ellis Arnall locked the door to the governor's office and refused to relinquish the post.

"I refused to surrender that office to the pretender," Arnall was quoted as saying. "Then the mob started for the door, led by a giant professional wrestler who had been the strong-arm man for the faction. My executive secretary, P.T. McCutchen, Jr., and one of my aides, Thad Buchanan, barred their way."

Both governors reported for work the next day, with each trying to take control of the governor's office suite. Arnall eventually relocated his office to a nearby building, and Talmadge reportedly said, "I understand he's holding down the bathroom in the basement now.''

Talmadge ultimately won the power struggle.

Arizona's territorial legislature settled matters with a bloody duel in 1886. Its 13th territorial legislature was known for unethical uses of the people's money and was nicknamed "The Thieving Thirteenth." Two state legislators settled a feud with a monkey wrench and bullwhip in 1886, said Marshall Trimble, Arizona state historian and instructor at Scottsdale Community College.

"When you go back to territorial days, it's like how Texas must still be," Trimble said.