If you don’t count junkets and legislative conferences and other adventures, Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, are the biggest pins on the Texas Legislature’s travel map.
That’s where the Democrats hid in 2003, having left the state to block votes on political redistricting maps that were — and still are — strongly tilted in favor of the Republicans.
If at least one-third of the House or Senate leaves town, the stay-behinds are prevented from meeting. They don’t have the quorum necessary to conduct business in their chamber. If you’re into the making of mischief and if you want to prevent a vote, one way is to get enough members of one body or the other to skedaddle.
House Democrats have been restive since the regular session. They’re unhappy about the outcome of a vote on sanctuary cities legislation in particular and — as some of them see it — the failure of the people in charge in the House to protect members from making law of that and other red-meat issues that animate Republican primary voters. Hence the chatter about booking it to the Big Easy.
It’s the stuff of pure fantasy. It’s hard to get legislators to take little risks, much less a big one like a government-disrupting road trip. The stakes have to be high. Lawmakers have to be convinced that sufficient numbers of their colleagues will jump along with them. And they’d like, in the end, to be rewarded by voters.
That’s why you might want to keep an eye on New Orleans as the July 18 start of a special session approaches.
Short-term delays are pretty common — a sometimes useful feature of the complex parliamentary rules that provide the structure for legislative argument and process. Overnight trips are extraordinary but dramatic, which is why lawmakers talk about such excursions when things aren’t going as they’d like. It’s a way to blow off steam.
House Democrats snuck off to Ardmore in May 2003, trying to block adoption of maps that would flip five of the state’s congressional seats to Republican control. Senate Democrats high-tailed it to Albuquerque a couple of months later, for the same reason. They got a lot of attention, but they ultimately lost the fight and Republicans used the new Texas seats to help gain a majority in Congress.
Even so, they demonstrated one way for a political minority to use quorum requirements to create obstacles for a majority that’s trying to run over them. And the state lawmakers who decamped for neighboring states were rewarded in the short term; in the House, they added a dozen Democrats to their number by 2009, trimming the Republican majority to just two votes in the 150-member chamber.
It would be possible, hypothetically speaking, to break the quorum in the special session and deny Gov. Greg Abbott and like-minded Republicans their chance to work through a list of 20 items that failed to pass in the regular session. The House has 55 Democrats — five more than a third of the total. The 11 Democrats in the Senate account for one more than a third there — also sufficient to derail Abbott’s train.
They’ve got other ways — easier ways — to kill bills they don’t like, especially in a relatively short 30-day session. But it’s fun to think about hitting the road.
It wouldn’t matter where they went, really. Some of the 2003 plotters were worried about what would happen if they absconded to an attractive place, like Las Vegas. It might look like they were living it up. Heck, they probably would’ve been living it up. If they’re serious about sneaking out during the special session this year, they might want to reconsider what a pack of scalawags might do in a place like New Orleans and how that might look to the folks back home.
Put yourself in their shoes, though. They’ll be missing a chunk of their summer to come to Austin to legislate. The people of Ardmore are nice, but it’s just not a vacation destination. And there are direct flights to New Orleans, too — it’s an easy getaway spot.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.