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Quorum Busting

October 1893

Photo of Senator Robert Packwood

Recent news stories describing members of the Texas senate fleeing to New Mexico to avoid being counted for a quorum bring to mind traditions of “quorum busting” within the U.S. Senate.

The framers of the Constitution sought to prevent such behavior by providing that a minority of members may “compel” absent colleagues to attend.  But the Constitution leaves it up to each chamber to determine precisely how.

For its first eighty years, the ever-collegial Senate adopted no rules to enforce attendance.  It simply provided that no member may be absent without the Senate’s permission and that the sergeant at arms could be sent to round up missing members, without actually arresting them.  As one senator explained, “It has always been supposed that a Senator acting upon his honor would report himself when his attendance was requested.”

In 1877, in response to proliferating filibusters that employed tactics designed to keep the Senate from attaining the 51 percent quorum needed to conduct business, the body amended its rules to allow the sergeant at arms, upon receiving Senate orders, to arrest members.

But what happened if senators, sitting in the chamber, responded to a quorum call and then refused to vote on the legislation before them?  During a major filibuster in October 1893, senators demanded the yeas and nays for a vote, but then remained silent when the clerk called their names.  The presiding officer announced that the necessary majority had not voted, even though there were enough senators in the chamber to make a quorum.  When that officer again ordered the clerk to call the roll to determine if a quorum was present, a majority of members answered.  But when the roll-call on the pending measure was then taken, the filibusterers declined to vote.  In one frustrating forty-hour-long session, this tactic produced thirty-nine quorum calls, but only four votes.

Four years later, in 1897, the Senate agreed to a procedure that basically ended this delaying game.  This prompted a return to the tactic staying away from the chamber.  

Over the following decades, the Senate occasionally directed its sergeant at arms to arrest members.  But the first openly physical act of compulsion did not occur until 1988.  On February 24, 1988, in an attempt to establish a quorum on a campaign finance reform bill, Capitol police carried Oregon Republican Senator Robert Packwood into the chamber feet first at 1:17 a.m.

Can Texas match that?