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Could Texas Democrats Thwart The Special Session By Breaking Quorum And Skipping Town?

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
An empty Texas House of Representatives in Feb. 2017.

From Texas Standard:

"Thanks, Democrats, for showing up for Tuesday’s opening day of the oh-so-special legislative session, but it looks like you’ll be just a minor speed bump as the Republicans steer the state even farther to the right."

So wrote Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman on Tuesday.


As the special session began, Democrats in the Senate tried to use procedural moves to slow down work on the governor's conservative agenda. But as Herman and other observers see it, resistance in the absence of votes is most likely futile.

Perhaps in an effort to dampen the kind of resistance Democrats have employed on other occasions when they were outnumbered, Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) filed a resolution to prohibit intentional absenteeism.  The House and Senate need a quorum — a minimum number of lawmakers — in order to conduct business. The logic goes that certain legislation can be stalled by avoiding a quorum through intentional absenteeism.

Back in 2003, when the hot-button issue was partisan congressional redistricting by majority Republicans in the House, Democrats did break quorum by not only staying away from the Capitol, but by leaving the state. It didn't work, but their flight to a hotel in Oklahoma earned them national news coverage, and a nickname: the "Killer Ds."

Hugh Brady helped direct the Democrats' strategy in 2003, and is now the director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. Brady says the Democratic House members left Austin in 2003 to call attention to Republican efforts to draw new congressional maps that favored their party. The maps had been recently redrawn in 2001, following the standard practice of coinciding with the latest Census.

"The Democrats were standing up for the people who voted for their congressman," Brady says. "Even though the statewide vote may have been a certain average ... the Democrats thought that the voters ought to be respected."

The Killer Ds weren't the first Texas lawmakers to avoid an unpleasant vote by staying away from the Capitol.

"In 1979, 12 Democratic senators left the building – most of them went to a garage apartment in West Austin – to prevent a vote on a primary bill that was intended to help John Connally win the Texas Republican presidential primary in 1980," Brady says. "This group of renegades called themselves the "Killer Bees."

Brady says Democrats faced little backlash for their actions in 2003. Only one participant lost a primary bid in 2004. The rest were reelected.

"Their constituents appreciated them standing up for them," Brady says.

Brady says actions like those taken by the Killer Ds and Killer Bees are rare because they require a lot of coordination and cost a great deal of money. He says the 2003 road trip benefited from the presence of friendly elected officials in neighboring states who were unlikely to act on arrest warrants issued by the Republicans back in Austin. Oklahoma and New Mexico, where the lawmakers fled first, both had Democratic governors and attorneys general.

If Democratic legislators choose to leave Texas to block this year's special session agenda, Brady says they will have a tougher time finding friends in other state governments.

"I don't think there's a Democratic attorney general within 250 miles of the state of Texas," Brady says. "I think they'd have to go a little further."


Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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