Wendy Davis’s rules: a guide to legislative rebellion

texas protesters
Bedlam in the Texas statehouse this week helped halt an anti-abortion bill, for now. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

By now, Americans are pretty familiar with filibusters. A few notable ones in the U.S. Senate have changed the procedural math such that most votes require a "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 votes to cut off debate, rather than the regular 51, causing much hand-wringing about our broken legislative process and minority power run amok.

But when state senator Wendy Davis stood up to deploy the same tactic against a bill that would dramatically curtail abortions in Texas, she became a rarity. Only 13 states allow filibusters, and with the exception of Nebraska's unicameral legislature -- where filibusters are at a seven-year high -- they're rarely used. Most come with restrictions on debate, such as a requirement that everything the filibustering lawmaker says must be germane to the subject at hand (unlike in the U.S. Senate, where you can drone on about anything) or that the lawmaker may not receive any assistance. (Under the Texas Senate's "three-strikes" rule, Davis's two somewhat off-topic comments and the help she received with a back brace brought her talkathon to an end.)

"In the vast majority of state legislative chambers, the majority can easily roll over the minority," says Peverill Squire,a professor and expert in state politics at the University of Missouri. "Indeed, in most chambers the minority has very few opportunities to slow things down, much less to bring the process to a halt. In many ways, the minority party is treated far better in the U.S. House than are their state legislative counterparts." For example, while the U.S. House allows the minority party equal time on the floor, many state houses guarantee no such right and often have strict limits on how often and for how long lawmakers can speak.

Still, there are a few ways for a minority party to get its way in state-level politics -- or at least gum up the works for a while. Herewith, a pocket guide:

The disappearing quorum: Most states require a certain number of legislators to be present for a vote to be considered valid. If a party wants to stop the vote from happening, they can sometimes physically stay in the chamber and not answer the call to vote, blocking a quorum with their silence. (The U.S. House put a stop to this practice at the end of the 19th century.)

The bolting quorum: If a chamber's rules don't allow legislators to block quorum by silence, the lawmakers can just leave the building -- or the state. This happened in Texas in 2003, when 50 Democratic representatives fled to Oklahoma to stop a redistricting plan from passing, and in Wisconsin in 2011, when Democrats were protesting Gov. Scott Walker's anti-labor budget. After a similar walkout in Indiana, that state legislature passed a law imposing $1,000 fines on members who "commit the act of legislative bolting."

Minibusters: Most state legislatures have hard deadlines, meaning the session has to end at a specific time. If time is tight enough, even if filibustering isn't allowed, a minority party can string together enough short speeches to deny the process the time a bill needs to pass. "This is referred to as 'chubbing,'" Squire says. "Although it is not the same as a filibuster, it can have similar consequences."

Legislative gutbusters: It can be useful to have a giant bill on hand that might not pass but will take a long, long time to read. "In Alabama, there is a threat of introducing 'Big Bertha,' an insurance regulatory bill that is reputedly over 1,000 pages long and sits in a drawer, waiting to be invoked," says Boise State University's Gary Montcrief. That's one way to kill a day of lawmaking.

Other delay tactics: Minority parties are more powerful when they're allowed to add amendments on the floor of the chamber, since this can crowd undesirable bills out of an agenda, as well as raise procedural points of order to be dealt with unless the majority party can vote to suspend the rules (University of Dayton political scientist Nancy Martorano's index of minority party power incorporates two of those factors). When all else fails, at the last minute, a mob of protesters making enough noise can take the chamber past a key deadline, as it ultimately did in the Texas abortion debate.

Thanks also to University of Houston professor Jennifer Clark for background. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
SECTION: {section=business, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Evan Soltas | June 28, 2013