States discourage legislator absences after extended walkouts

Minority parties have used the strategy to delay legislation and shine a brighter light on their opposition to it.
The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin (Photo: Reid Wilson, Pluribus News)

Three states are attempting to address lawmaker absenteeism, a tool that has been used by minority parties to derail legislation.

In Texas, the Republican-led House recently adopted rules that include fines, censure and the possibility of expulsion for absence without leave. In Oregon, voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to prevent lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences in a single legislative session from running again for the legislature.

Both are responses to high-profile walkouts by the minority as a last resort to halt legislation. Separately, Arizona’s legislature is considering legislation filed in response to one senator’s extended absence.

“These quorum walkouts are what a legislative minority uses in the states when they don’t have any other political power,” said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor. Kousser said lawmakers typically resort to the tactic in states in which one party controls both chambers and the governorship.

That is the case in Texas and Oregon, which are among the four states that require two-thirds attendance for a quorum, according to Ballotpedia. Nearly every other state requires only a simple majority.

Rules in legislative chambers require a minimum number of lawmakers to be present, known as a quorum, to conduct business. Denying the majority a quorum keeps anything from passing.

In Texas, House Democrats walked out on Republicans twice in 2021 to keep the legislature from passing voting legislation that included a ban on drive-thru and 24-hour voting, the empowerment of partisan poll watchers, and a prohibition on the mailing of unsolicited mail-in ballot applications by election officials.

During the second walkout, from a special session in July, more than 50 Democrats fled the state on chartered planes to Washington, D.C. After more than a month out of state, three returned to join fellow Democrats who never left and the GOP majority — enough for a quorum — and the proposal passed and was signed into law.

Kousser said the tactic serves mostly as a public relations maneuver.

“At the end of the day, there’s mostly been delaying tactics that haven’t fully derailed,” Kousser said. “They’ve been a way to call attention to a fight to put additional scrutiny on what the majority is trying to do, and sometimes have helped in negotiations.”

Under the new Texas House rules, adopted on a party-line 87 to 54 vote, lawmakers determined to be absent “for the purpose of impeding the action of the house” can be fined up to $500 daily. The fines, possible censure and expulsion will be handled by the House Administration Committee, which is charged with investigating instances of unexcused absences.

“The whole idea is, ‘Let’s’ operate as a House, let’s be here, let’s get business done,’” Rep. Todd Hunter (R) said during debate on the rules package. “But we’ve got to have a procedure to handle this and that’s what this is.”

In Oregon, Republicans walked out on the Democratic majority in 2019, 2020 and 2021. GOP senators walked out twice in 2019 — in May over a tax bill and in June over a cap-and-trade measure. The following year, Senate Republicans walked out to block a proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2021 held a walkout to protest Gov. Kate Brown’s Covid-19 restrictions.

The tactic led to the constitutional amendment that effectively blocked lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from serving in the next term. This session will be the first where the amendment applies.

Observers are unsure if it will be effective.

Judy Stiegler, who teaches political science at Oregon State University-Cascades and served one term in the Oregon House, said it is notable that the amendment passed with nearly 70% support, signaling that voters dislike it when lawmakers don’t show up for work.

Jake Weigler, an Oregon-based political strategist, said the midterm election has served to cool tempers and perhaps a walkout will not be in the cards this year anyway.

“This may be a reset for the legislature,” Weigler said. “There’s a lot of new members on both sides of the aisle.”

While there haven’t been any legislator walkouts in Arizona, the GOP-led Senate could consider an absentee measure stemming from an ethics complaint.

Sen. T.J. Shope (R) asked the Senate Ethics Committee in May to make recommendations on legislation to address the issue. The request was prompted by Sen. Juan Mendez (D), whom Shope accused of “taking advantage of the system” by missing an inordinate number of days.

Shope said Mendez has violated a state law that deems a state office vacant if the office holder ceases to discharge their duty for six months. Mendez has said that his absences were due to having a baby in January and wanting to avoid catching Covid-19.

Shope told the Arizona Capitol Times that he has spoken with GOP leadership about the issue and that the legislature may need to adopt a rule specifying how to define a vacant post in the chamber.