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Boycott reaches 30 days for Indiana House Democrats

March 22, 2011

A legislative stalemate in Indiana reached a political milestone on Tuesday as House Democrats who fled the state to block legislation they oppose stayed away for a 30th consecutive day in what now ranks among the longest Statehouse boycotts in recent U.S. history.

Several ingredients contributed to the ongoing standoff, including a supercharged political atmosphere, major proposed changes on fundamental issues, and the state Constitution itself, which requires a quorum for any laws to be passed.

Indiana House Democrats, outnumbered by Republicans 60-40, walked off their jobs and fled to Illinois last month to derail bills they consider an attack on labor unions and public education. Democrats say it's a day-to-day decision on when they'll return — though they won't be back Wednesday.

Republicans said they're hopeful that House Democrats will return soon, but are moving on without them with informal hearings in the House and official work in the Senate. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, suggested the 30th day of the walkout was no cause for celebration.

"It's been a negative historic milestone, but we're working through it," Bosma told reporters Tuesday after again trying unsuccessfully to convene the House.

Those backing the boycott are glad Democrats remain in Urbana, Ill. Jeff Combs, with the Teamsters Local Union No. 135 in Indianapolis, said he's been at the Statehouse every day since the walkout began.

"We're getting tired, but we're not going away," he said as union members chanted slogans and held signs inside the Statehouse Tuesday. "Nobody ever wants it to have to come to this, but they (Republicans) didn't want to negotiate. Both sides are not going to come out of this a winner. There's got to be some give or take."

Indiana's founding fathers likely wanted a spirit of compromise when they included in the state Constitution a requirement that two-thirds of members be present for the House to conduct business, said Gregory Koger, a University of Miami assistant professor of political science who has studied walkouts and filibusters.

"Maybe they want to create the potential for obstruction so there is some degree of consensus on what gets done," Koger said. "That's not necessarily a bad thing."

Most states only require a simple majority of lawmakers to be present to conduct business, which means boycotts wouldn't stop proceedings unless some members of the majority joined them. Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said only four state constitutions require "supermajority quorums" to conduct any business: Indiana, Tennessee, Oregon and Texas, where a 2003 boycott halted business for the entire 30-day span of a special legislative session.

Vermont's House requires a supermajority quorum to approve state tax increases, Erickson said, and Wisconsin requires one for measures that spend money. That rule allowed Wisconsin Republicans to get around a recent Democratic boycott by removing the spending portions of a bill Democrats opposed and then passing it with a simple majority.

Koger predicts more walkouts as politics continue to grow more polarizing.

"If one party has an agenda that the other considers way out there, neither party can compromise with the other and maintain credibility with their own loyalists," Koger said. "Then it's really hard to get anything done."

Indiana Republicans saw big legislative gains in 2010 elections — thanks in part to more conservative tea party voters — and are pursuing an aggressive plan this year with the GOP in control of the House, Senate, governor's office and every statewide elected position. Most Democrats who survived November are in legislative districts considered safe and have little to lose politically if most of their constituents support the boycott.

Republicans argue that elections should have consequences, and say they refused to "be bullied" into dropping items from their agenda. Democrats insist that Republicans are overreaching.

"Really part of what we're trying to do in a historical sense is steer things back to the middle," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

The impasse was first sparked by a so-called "right-to-work" bill that Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels had warned could derail other proposals, but that bill is now dead. The National Right to Work Committee and its Indiana affiliate announced Tuesday a newspaper ad campaign urging Daniels and Republicans to revive the issue. Democrats said they trust Republicans who have assured them the issue will not be resurrected, but said the campaign reflects mounting pressure from the right.

Democrats also oppose a handful of other issues, including restrictions on collective bargaining and a voucher proposal that would direct taxpayer money to private schools. Democrats say labor and education issues are at the heart of their constituencies, making it easier for them to stay united as they boycott.

"Members of the House Democratic Caucus remain resolved in our commitment to fight the radical agenda aimed at Indiana's middle class," House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said in a statement Tuesday.

But the complicated mix of issues does make it more complicated to find solutions. Previous walkouts in Indiana, including some revolving around a single issue, have been resolved with negotiations and compromise. Legislative boycotts can also end when one party decides they've made their point and return without much to show for it, Koger said.

In extreme cases — such as a 1924 boycott in Rhode Island that led to fisticuffs on the Senate floor and a gas bomb intended to drive the presiding officer from his podium — Koger said long-term standoffs can end a more drastic way: with a new round of elections.

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