By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; A01
Lawmaking can be a frustrating business, especially when you're outnumbered. But some Democratic state legislators have recently embraced a simple tool to gain leverage: the empty chair.
The strategy was used to great effect this week, when two Maryland delegates did not show up at a committee meeting about a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. Their colleagues cracked nervous jokes for 30 minutes before the session was canceled, delaying a final vote.
The tactic is still being used in spectacular fashion by Wisconsin legislators, who fled to Illinois two weeks ago to prevent a vote on a bill that would weaken public employee unions. And Democrats in Indiana who are upset about a similar issue also have decamped to Illinois, holing up at a Comfort Suites in Urbana. They work out of the breakfast nook, subsist on Subway sandwiches and donated chili dinners, and make frequent visits to the coin-op laundry.
They took umbrage this week when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), at his wit's end over the inability to call a quorum and get any legislation passed, accused them of trying to legislate from a hot tub in Illinois.
"There have been no spa visits. I would much rather be home holding my three grandsons," said state Rep. Kreg Battles, who returned to Indiana on Wednesday for his first visit in more than a week. "I will say as a minority member I don't expect to run the show. But I do expect my voice to get heard, and this is a way that we can demand that we're not locked out of the process."
The disappearing lawmakers have succeeded in drawing out the various debates, underscoring their seriousness and ensuring that they remain in the headlines day after day. But they have also provoked a backlash among critics who wonder whether it's fair for the legislators to essentially take their ball and go home instead of acknowledging that they've lost the game.
Mass walkouts by legislators are rare, in part because few states require a supermajority to be present to pass bills. And lawmakers are typically reluctant to risk being viewed as obstructionists by fleeing en masse and holding up the legislative process.
The 14 Wisconsin senators on the lam, who left their colleagues one member shy of a quorum, have been hailed as heroes by some who think they are taking a principled stand against an unreasonable majority. But their critics have compared them to kindergartners and have ridiculed them as "the Wisconsin Flee Party."
"If I did that in my job, I'd be fired," said David Stevens, 44, a database analyst from Indianapolis who is sympathetic to the unions but not to the Democrats delaying the proceedings.
Wisconsin Republicans have said they will not heed Democrats' demands for them to abandon efforts to strip public employees of some collective-bargaining rights. But the Republicans have tried other measures to bring home the missing - voting to fine them and holding up their paychecks. On Thursday, Republicans authorized their arrests. So far, nothing has worked. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Thursday that layoff notices could be delivered as early as Friday to as many as 1,500 workers if his budget bill doesn't pass the state legislature.
In Maryland, Democrats were left scrambling to salvage a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. Not surprisingly, Republicans who oppose such unions defended the two missing Democratic lawmakers.
"She needed some time to pray about this," Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. said of Del. Tiffany Alston (D), one of the absent delegates. But he was harsher toward the Indiana and Wisconsin Democrats. "As Republicans in Maryland, we get beat up on constantly. The trick is to be smarter, work harder and find ways to achieve as many victories as you can. But you can't just leave because you're not going to win."
Alston said Wednesday that this was a difficult decision for her and that she had not been ready to vote, but that she would no longer boycott. Fellow Democratic Del. Jill P. Carter said she stayed away in hopes that House leaders would make concessions on her other legislative priorities.
Although unusual, the idea of absentee lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats - is hardly unprecedented. Perhaps the most high-profile example was in 2003, when more than 50 Texas Democrats crossed state lines to stop a GOP plan to redraw the state's congressional boundaries. The tactic failed.
Examples date back more than a century. In Illinois in 1839, state Rep. Abraham Lincoln - yes, that Abraham Lincoln - orchestrated a walkout to block a Democratic bill requiring the central bank to make payments in gold or silver instead of paper money.
(When he and his fellow Whigs tried the same maneuver the following day, the House speaker locked them in, the story goes. So they tried unsuccessfully to block the vote by jumping out the window.)
And in 2005, Democrats in the Indiana House temporarily killed more than 100 bills, including some top priorities for the Republican majority, by boycotting a part of the legislative session.
The strategy is typically employed when emotions are running high, so it is not surprising that Democrats took a stand now, at a time of "existential crisis" for the American labor movement - a key part of their political base, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
"Whatever [the Democrats] feel about the specifics, this is an ally that's asking for a lifeline to be thrown," he said. But he said it leaves a bad taste in his mouth. "Nobody likes to lose. But sometimes you have to just go in there and accept the adverse vote, no matter how high the stakes are, and plan to get your revenge at the next election."
Staff writers John Wagner and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.