Opinion and Forefront

STYRING: This sergeant at arms would bust chops

May 21, 2011

Bill StyringFLASH: “Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives today began their fifth week of an out-of-state walkout protesting various pieces of pending legislation. The move denies the House the necessary two-thirds quorum to conduct business and effectively shuts down that body.” Dateline: Cincinnati, Ohio, January 1863

Wait a second! Don’t you mean “Urbana, Ill.” and “March 2011”?

Well, actually, no. This sort of things has happened before.

In the 1863 legislature, the House Dems mounted their horses and rode to Ohio. Most of them were from southern Indiana where there was rampant pro-Confederacy sentiment. They figured getting out of Indiana meant Gov. Oliver P. Morton couldn’t send his marshals to drag them back because he had no jurisdiction.

Without a quorum, the House couldn’t pass a budget, they thought, so no appropriations meant no money for Union troops.

In the end, it didn’t work. Morton kept sending money, anyway. He had 5,000 union troops backing his play to spend no money.

Still, the 2011 Long Walkout did have precedent and raises profound questions about the future of Indiana politics. Temporary symbolic walkouts lasting a day or even a week, where legislators simply go home for a little while, have been common and relatively harmless. Scarcely a legislative session goes by when one party or the other hasn’t engaged in this play-acting.

Months-long out-of-state flight in an attempt to really block legislation is quite another thing.

Do we want the across-the-state-line Long Walkout to become common practice? I wouldn’t.

Fortunately, there are legal and practical reasons to hope our 1863 and 2011 experiences may be once-a-century drama.

Legislators who lam it across state lines are indeed beyond the clutches of Indiana authorities. But realistically, how long can they stay away without sneaking home to see the spouse and kids once in a while? In Indiana, they can be nabbed.

Or can they? The Indiana Constitution, Article IV Section 8, says that while in session, legislators are immune from arrest except in cases of “treason, felony or breach of the peace.” In other words, unless they join al Qaeda, knock over a bank, or are drunk and disorderly or such, the cops can’t touch ’em, even in Indiana.

Maybe the cops can’t, but Article IV Section 11 says that, in the absence of a quorum, the members present “may compel the attendance of absent members.” Does that mean the sergeant at arms (their police chief) or his deputies may arrest an absent member and frog-march him into the House chamber in handcuffs and leg irons?

I think a perfectly good legal argument could be made that the sergeant at arms has that power. He might request the assistance of a police officer in making the arrest, but he would be the official arresting officer, acting in the name of the House.

Then there’s the huge practical reason: the state budget. The majority can always wait out the walkouts.

Suppose July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, rolls around. The old budget has expired and no new budget is in place. A whole lot of nasty things happen. Example: The state effectively pays 100 percent of school operating expenses and many teachers are on a year-round pay cycle.

How long could Democrats stay away when they start hearing from their teacher union allies that they can’t eat principle?

So why couldn’t they come back and vote on a budget, then skip town again? That doesn’t work, either. Once they vote “present” to establish a quorum, that’s it. The House could vote on anything with 51 of 100 members present. The one-third plus one might as well go on vacation.

Bottom line: The Long Walkout tactic is a losing hand, thank goodness.

Meanwhile, I volunteer to be deputized as a sergeant at arms.•

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Styring is an economist, a former Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, and a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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