Walking out on democracy

Though acceptable in theory, legislative walkouts yield few results and can be counterproductive

By Colin Bradley

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Illinois has recently played host to two legislative walkouts by Democrats from its northern and eastern neighbors. The Wisconsin walkout, as some of us remember quite well, coincided with massive protests over a bill to reduce collective bargaining rights for state employees.

The Indiana walkout was less publicized, but ultimately gained notoriety for becoming the longest of its kind in US history. Democrats there originally left over a right-to-work bill, but subsequently found many other reasons for enjoying Illinois’ hospitality.

The possibilities of similar walkouts have been floated in Missouri and Texas as well, although these both seem unlikely at this point.

This is certainly not a new stunt. In fact, the very first legislative walkout is purported to have been orchestrated by none other than Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois House back in 1839. Lincoln led the Whig party out of the legislature in protest over a banking bill that ultimately passed without a quorum–some reports of the event even include Lincoln escaping the locked chamber by jumping out of a window.

Even recent political history shows us walkouts in California, Alabama, Nevada, Oregon, Indiana, and Texas over the last 15 years. The point is that this is not a new legislative tactic. It has, however, been strongly criticized this year.

Many critics of the move basically call it a legislative strike–which essentially it is. They cite other public employees who are prohibited from striking, such as police officers, firefighters, and in some states, even teachers. These people are considered crucial to a functioning society and for good reason are generally forbidden to strike. The argument continues that legislators are equally crucial to society and should also not be allowed to strike.

These critics also argue—correctly—that in the process of walking out over an issue with one particular bill, legislators also halt the democratic process for other bills with which they may not have a problem. State legislators only have a limited amount of time to work, and a walkout over one controversial bill jeopardizes the possibility of passing even the commonsense laws that everyone can agree on.

In all, the legislative walkout leaves a bad taste in peoples' mouths. It seems like a rejection of the majority-rule principle of democratic government—it’s like saying, “I don’t like the rules, so I’m not going to play.” But the outcome of this game affects millions of people, and they don’t have anyone else to play for them. That said, the legislative walkouts are not without some justification. In Wisconsin for example, the Democrats argue that they were actually representing the will of the people. And they were right—the polls showed that the majority of the state was opposed to the bill. They reasoned that if the bill were put to the people, it would fail, and therefore it should also fail in the body that represents the people.

Furthermore, they at least appeared to have legitimate fundamental issues with the collective bargaining bill. Now, the bill is not such an unforgivable attack on human rights as some of the rhetoric may have you believe, but the Democrats’ claims raise an interesting question. Namely, are there certain issues which would, unquestionably, merit a walkout? Is it fair that firefighters, police officers, and legislators can never protest?

I for one believe there are some fundamental issues which could warrant a walkout—the problem is defining those particular issues. In the case of an egregious attack on the American people or Constitution, a walkout is acceptable in theory. As it stands, this procedure is already overused, and in danger of becoming almost commonplace.

But let’s look at the results in Wisconsin. State Republicans were ultimately able to pass a slightly modified version of the bill without the Democrats’ presence in Madison. So not only did the legislators fail in preventing the bill, but they forced it to be passed in a bizarrely compromised fashion—a compromise made not between Democrats and Republicans, but between Republicans and necessity. The ultimate result: an imperfect version of an already hotly contested bill. The walkout not only failed—it did more damage.

I think what this issue boils down to is a sort of national ambiguity concerning the nature of our representative democracy. Do we expect our elected officials to at every moment respond to the will of the majority? Or is it their prerogative to exercise their own judgment, in some sort of safeguard against the often volatile whims of the people?

If we accept the first proposition, then the Democrats in Wisconsin and even Indiana were completely justified in their walkout. The only way for them to represent the majority will of the people was, unfortunately, to completely halt the democratic process. Yet if we accept the second proposition, the walkouts were entirely unreasonable and undemocratic moves.

This is a debate we need to have in this country. If we cannot come to some sort of consensus, we will likely continue to endure even more bouts of legislative limbo. We must once and for all decide whether or not we want to accept this procedure (as we have the filibuster), or if above all else our legislators must cast their votes and let the dice fall as they may.

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College.