Tag Archives: minority-majority

Checks, Balances and Legislative Absences

Yesterday, my sister asked me when I was going to blog about the Democratic “departure” from Indiana’s legislative session. She was the fourth person to ask me that.

I haven’t addressed our legislative impasse, largely because I am conflicted about it.

The walkout as a tactic has much in common with the U.S. Senate filibuster; both are intended to provide a check on the power of majorities to ride roughshod over the interests of a legislative minority. Both are legitimate IF–and it’s a big if–they are properly and judiciously employed. In the case of the filibuster, I support the “old-time” version (the Jimmy Stewart version, if you will), where Senators actually stood up on the chamber’s floor and talked–and talked. Filibustered. I do not support the current version, where the minority party simply says “If you do that, we’ll filibuster,” and the majority caves if it can’t count on sixty votes to override.

This iteration, it seems to me, is worse than lazy–it gives positive encouragement to those whose sole purpose is to deny the majority an opportunity to accomplish anything.

In the state legislature, my calculus is much the same. If negotiation fails, if the majority is being dictatorial and unreasonable, if it is attempting to take actions that the minority is convinced would cause significant damage, the minority may legitimately withdraw in order to bring the chamber to a halt and focus public attention on the arguments involved. The use of such a “nuclear option” should be rare, however, and judiciously employed.

A couple of additional observations: these “rules” should apply no matter who is in the majority or minority. And as Doug Masson observed in his blog post yesterday, legislative absence does not necessarily equate to “not working.” Most of the work of legislative bodies occurs outside the chamber even when everyone is present, for one thing, and keeping bad laws from being enacted is also “doing legislative work.”

There are certainly arguments to be made about the propriety of any particular use of drastic tactics, but the tactics themselves serve a purpose when appropriately used. When I look at the current assault on working people, teachers and women, and the potential consequences of the measures the Democrats are trying to block, I think this is an appropriate response.

If the use of such tactics at the state level becomes a routine part of our toxic and gridlocked political environment, as the abuse and misuse of the filibuster has, I might change my mind.