The Latest There Should be Consequences for Political Truancy in State Governments

Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators apparently have found loopholes in the state ethics laws that permit them to shirk their official responsibilities. If the 14 senators who have fled the state in order to deny Republicans a quorum to conduct business in the legislature are not stopped, disruptions of this sort are going to become widespread. Over time, similar stunts will be pulled, with variations, by both parties in states across the nation.

The truants from Madison would have appalled the leaders who wrote any American state constitution, including Wisconsin’s. In days before fast travel by cars and airplanes, the chance of a hookey-playing senator seeking effective sanctuary in another state was not anticipated. Constitution writers considered that the authority to send the state police after such a legislative truant would suffice. Therefore, in Wisconsin and elsewhere state law must now be brought up to date if the aims of the state’s founders are to be observed.

The Wisconsin senators’ gambit was inspired by Texas Democratic legislators who, a decade ago, took off for Oklahoma to prevent enactment of a Republican redistricting plan. That rebellion failed in the end, but Wisconsin today has lots of media and other commentators chuckling and clucking approval of the “brave” Democratic senators. If the hookey-players were Republicans, however, the same folk would be demanding punitive action. 

Instead, Democrats in Indiana already are joining the fun, fleeing unwelcome votes and seeking legal sanctuary in Illinois. The Land of Lincoln is even more buried in taxes and debt than Wisconsin, so maybe this is an indirect way for its helpful neighbors to stimulate its lagging economy. Their new theme songs are “On Wisconsin, to Chicago!” and “Back Home Again in Indian — Not.”

But back in Wisconsin and Indiana, legislative reform (by popular initiative, if necessary) might well start with a declaration that elected members of a legislative body who fail to appear for service may be deprived of salary, benefits and staff. Exceptions would be made, of course, for valid excused absences, such as for genuine illness. After that, a non-partisan panel could declare that the missing legislators had defaulted on their public obligations. The scofflaws’ legislative seats would be considered vacant and subject to a new election at which the nominal incumbents would be ineligible to compete.

Protestors mobilized by public employee unions in Madison have waved printed signs saying, “The World is Watching.” If so, the world is watching what happens when politicians are derelict in their duties, the most fundamental of which is to show up once elected. Consequences will flow from how this turns out.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.