WHY LAWMAKERS FLEE: Oregon's recent walkout reflects a growing trend.

AuthorVasilogambros, Matt
PositionLEGISLATURES - Reprint

Oregon Democrats were on track to pass sweeping legislation this session that would reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions. But then Republican lawmakers threw a political Hail Mary. They left the state.

Their play appears to have worked.

Eleven Senate Republicans left June 20, returning nine days later, after Senate President Peter Courtney said the majority Democrats lacked the necessary votes to pass the bill. The climate measure was sent back to committee, killing it for the session.

With any walkout, a large question looms over the political protest: Will it work?

Used around the country for the past two centuries, by countless state lawmakers from both political parties, walking out grinds legislative action to a halt. Without enough lawmakers present in the Capitol, legislative chambers can't reach a quorum. The gamble is whether the maneuver will work or whether it will deal the lawmakers in flight a hefty political price.

Walkouts May Increase

As state politics become more partisan and lawmakers are less willing to negotiate legislation, walkouts may be used more frequently. The tactic, which at times gains national attention, can run out the clock on legislative sessions and stall bills that otherwise would have passed.

While the gamble may have worked in Oregon in the short run, walkouts can be politically costly plays that rarely work in the long run, says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who studied the 2011 legislative walkout in the Hoosier State.

Their fate often depends on the kind of walkout, he says. The most common are ones that last for a few hours or days. Members of a caucus won't show up to a committee or floor votes, preventing a quorum. It sends a message they're serious about an issue being debated, Downs says. It rarely gets much press and can be an effective negotiating tool.

The second and more rare walkouts are ones like that in Oregon, where lawmakers flee the state for several weeks or months. These large events use a lot of political capital and show voters that those lawmakers might be sore losers and unwilling to negotiate, Downs says.

"If you're using this option, you're probably not in a good bargaining position to begin with," he says.

At the same time, it might fire up their base, showing they refuse to give up their principles.

Both types of walkouts should be used with caution and can have widespread...

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