Op-Ed: Reflections of a Quorum Breaker

by | Aug 27, 2021 | Opinion, Texas Legislature

I’m a proud quorum breaker.

By leaving Texas, my 56 Democratic colleagues and I shined a national spotlight on Greg Abbott’s voter suppression bill and pushed Congress closer to passing a new federal voting rights act to override it. We did it by staying focused, being strategic, and drinking plenty of Miller Lite.

After my dustup with a Fox News anchor, I became one of the most visible quorum breakers. A month later, I became one of the first quorum breakers to return to the House floor. You may be wondering how both those things can be true.

Let me explain.

* * *

For my fellow Texas progressives, the quorum break was cathartic—even euphoric. After years of Republican extremism, we finally said “enough.” We walked away. As in any form of protest, it felt good to dissent. But in some ways, the quorum break was like a dream—a fantasy in which Republicans didn’t control every branch of state government and couldn’t exert their political will. And just like with any dream, we eventually have to wake up.

My Democratic colleagues and I were united for the first three weeks in Washington D.C. as we focused on the task of lobbying Congress. But as our agreed-upon end date of August 7 drew closer, a divide formed between the 57 quorum breakers. Should we continue to break quorum? If so, for how long? And to what end? There were many heated debates in the conference room of the Washington Plaza Hotel about what to do next. But we all agreed on one thing: there was no endgame.

After those emotionally-draining debates, I would take late-night walks on the National Mall often stopping at the statue of our 16th president and the most famous quorum breaker in American history. Abraham Lincoln jumped out of a window at the Illinois State Capitol in 1840 to bust quorum. On the side of the Lincoln Memorial, the words of the Gettysburg Address are etched into granite: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln spoke those words on a blood-soaked battlefield. A grim reminder of the violent alternative to government of, by, and for the people. The future of our democracy is more uncertain now than any time since the Civil War. In this era of political instability, all of us—Republicans and Democrats—who swear a sacred oath to uphold the Constitution have a moral obligation to use our power responsibly; to protect this fragile experiment in self-governance. In short, to ensure the game outlasts the players.

Over the past month, I’ve wrestled with my own responsibilities to democracy. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to share some of my reflections with you.

* * *

Let’s start with five key assumptions.

  1. We can only break quorum for the voter suppression bill—not other bad bills.

Breaking quorum is a powerful and potentially dangerous legislative tool. It stops the functioning of state government; it disrupts representative democracy. That’s why I’ve said from the beginning that breaking quorum should only be reserved for structural threats to our democratic system like mid-decade gerrymandering in 2003 and this voter suppression bill in 2021. Voting rights is not just another issue. It is foundational. It is fundamental. It underpins every other policy debate. That’s why we left. We can debate issues, but we won’t debate democracy itself.

Don’t get me wrong—there are other harmful bills on the docket for this special session in addition to the voter suppression bill. For example, the historical whitewashing bill that I killed in the regular session is back on the agenda. So is the bill to discriminate against trans student-athletes which I fought vigorously in committee. As much as I despise these two bills, I recognize that neither meet the high threshold of a quorum break. In fact, it would set a dangerous precedent to walk out every time a bad bill hits the House floor. We have to find other ways to stop these bills again.

  1. We can’t break quorum forever.

Some progressive activists have asked why my Democratic colleagues and I can’t fix everything with more quorum breaking. This is a new idea. If quorum breaking is the solution to all our political problems, why didn’t we use it in the regular session to kill permitless carry and the ban on abortion?

In addition to the dangerous precedent set by breaking quorum for non-democracy issues, there are mundane logistical challenges with indefinite quorum busts. 

There are personal challenges. Many of my colleagues left behind young children, elderly parents, and sick loved ones to flee the state. Many of my colleagues left behind day jobs including those who serve as the sole breadwinners for their families. My colleagues and I were absolutely willing to make these personal sacrifices to accomplish finite goals, but we can’t do it in perpetuity. 

There are also financial challenges. It costs roughly $30,000 a day to break quorum. Food, travel, and lodging for 57 legislators plus a skeleton crew of staff starts to add up. Thankfully, we raised $1.5 million from small-dollar donors to fund this quorum break, and we spent every penny of it. But when the spotlight moved on, the money ran out.

This is why my Democratic colleagues and I were very careful about setting an end date. When I first got the call on July 11 from our Democratic leadership, I was asked if I was willing to break quorum until August 7—the last day of the first special session. When I agreed, I announced publicly that “we’re prepared to stay out of Texas for the rest of this session.” We were hoping to manage expectations about what was possible. 

We can’t hold out forever. Texas House Democrats are tough, but we’re not magic.

  1. Abbott will keep adding the voter suppression bill to special session after special session until it passes.

From pushing this voter suppression bill to defunding the legislative branch of state government, Governor Abbott has shown a unique disdain for our democracy. His head-spinning transformation from thoughtful jurist to Trumpian demagogue is complete just in time for the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary. 

Abbott has promised to keep calling special sessions until his voter suppression bill becomes law—including into next year if necessary. Nothing can sate Greg Abbott’s hunger for political power and nothing can quench his thirst for Donald Trump’s approval.

As my fellow quorum breakers and I said from the beginning, there is no practical way to stop this bill from becoming law in Texas as long as Greg Abbott is governor.

  1. The only way to stop the voter suppression bill is for Congress to override it.

The reason we broke quorum in Washington D.C. was to pressure Congress to pass a new federal voting rights act that could override the voter suppression bill in Texas. That pressure campaign was successful. Today, Congress is closer than ever to protecting the freedom to vote in every state. As Rep. Senfornia Thompson has said, we were 57 spark plugs that jump-started a dead engine.

But there’s always been a timing problem: it could take months for Congress to actually write and pass a voting rights act. Based on what we’ve heard from Capitol Hill insiders, the absolute earliest the act could pass is late September, but it could also take until December or later.

We knew we couldn’t stay out of Texas that long. We were living on borrowed time. That’s why our primary ask in every meeting—including our meetings with Majority Leader Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi—was to include a retroactive “look back” provision of at least one year in the final act. We’ve been assured that will be added. Meaning whenever the federal legislation is passed it will override the Texas suppression bill that will most likely pass in the coming weeks. Thankfully, the voter suppression bill won’t take effect until 90 days after it’s passed, giving Congress even more time to act.

A promise of a retroactive provision is a big win, but at the end of the day, we’re not U.S. Senators; we’re State Reps. We can’t do their job for them. Our objective was to give them the information and the momentum they need to pass a new voting rights act. We’ve done that. Our job is back here in Texas.

  1. Preserving the bipartisan traditions of the Texas House is the only way to reduce the harm of other bad bills on the special session agenda.

Any #txlege observer worth their salt will tell you there’s a difference between statewide leaders like the Governor and Lt. Governor who are accountable to the Republican primary electorate and the State House leaders like the Speaker who are accountable to the members of the House.

Because of this structural difference, the Texas House is the last best hope to restrain the worst impulses of the Republican Party. Under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus and Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Texas House became a cooling saucer for the hot tea delivered by Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick. Don’t misunderstand me—the Texas House is very conservative, but it’s not completely insane (yet).

While we’re in the minority, the last thing we want as progressives is a Texas House that operates like the Texas Senate: nonexistent rules, partisan committee leadership, and unhinged policy priorities. Some may argue that this is just a matter of degrees. But when crafting public policy, those degrees matter.

During this polarizing quorum break, the bipartisan culture and cooperative ethos of the Texas House began to atrophy. The far-right element within the body became emboldened and empowered. With our mission accomplished in Washington, some of my fellow quorum breakers and I saw a fastly closing window to walk back from the brink and save this critical institution.

* * *

At the Lincoln Memorial, there’s a small inscription at the spot where a preacher made a speech in 1963. A preacher who turned Lincoln’s hopes for a government of, by, and for the people into a reality.

As a progressive and a Christian, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a prophetic voice in my life. On the wall of my campaign office in my first race were four words: “Tough Minds, Tender Hearts.” They come from a 1959 sermon in which Rev. King reflects on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Jesus recognized the need for the blending of opposites. He knew that his disciples were going out to take his message into a difficult and hostile world…Then he goes on to give them a formula for action: “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having the characteristics of the serpent and the dove simultaneously; but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove. In other words, Jesus is saying that individual life at its best requires the possession of a tough mind and a tender heart.

Rev. King goes on to argue that a tough mind without a tender heart is cold and selfish, while a tender heart without a tough mind is ineffective and aimless. God gave us a heart and a mind, and meant for us to use both. Or as my mother used to say: follow your heart, but take your brain with you.

I don’t know if it’s my mother’s advice or my background as an organizer and an educator, but I always think about goals. We left Texas with two goals: (1) break quorum until the end of the first special session on August 7, and (2) restart the national conversation about federal voting rights legislation in Congress. Done and done.

Given this success and recognizing that we can’t break quorum indefinitely, some of my fellow quorum breakers and I returned to the Texas House to begin the work of rebuilding relationships, negotiating policy, and reducing harm.

Harm reduction is not sexy or glamorous. It doesn’t make for good Tweets or lucrative fundraising emails, but it’s necessary work. While in Washington, we met with Former Georgia House Minority Leader and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. She told us the thankless job of the minority in a legislative body is to “lose in the best way possible.” That means getting your hands dirty while never claiming credit when bad stuff doesn’t happen. It’s certainly much easier to keep your hands clean and holler from the peanut gallery, but that does nothing to help people in harm’s way. If bad bills weaken or die it’s usually because a group of legislators and advocates worked quietly behind the scenes to make it happen.

While we need a plan to win power in the long term, progressives have a moral imperative to reduce harm in the short term, especially when legislation targets our most marginalized and vulnerable communities. Given that we shouldn’t break quorum for non-democracy issues, the best progressive lawmakers can do in the minority is weaken bad bills using our relationships or kill bad bills using the rules. We will not always succeed. Bad legislation will become law, but that doesn’t mean we should lose hope. For example, the positive changes already made to the bail bill in this second special session prove that when progressives show up and fight we can make an impact.

I don’t want to overpromise. We won’t be able to weaken or kill every bad bill. Some will become law in this special session or possible future special sessions. As much as I’ve tried, I can’t find a viable way to stop that from happening. And I respect you enough to tell you the truth. The burden of proof is on those promising a viable plan to stop Texas Republicans from ever passing a bad bill again. It’s up to them to share the details. I’m all ears.

At this point, reducing harm is my only goal. During our last week in Washington, I told my Democratic colleagues I was willing to continue breaking quorum if there was a different goal we could achieve. Although many tactics were discussed, no one could ever identify a goal. In other words, we could answer the how, but not the why.

We discussed staying in Washington a few more weeks and forcing the Governor to call another special session. But why? As a member of the minority, I never want to give the majority more time on the clock. More special sessions give Greg Abbott more opportunities to add even more dangerous bills to the agenda. It only gets worse from here. The first law of holes states: “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

We discussed holding out a few more weeks in Texas and forcing the House Speaker to arrest us. But why? Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool, but the history of social movements has taught us that civil disobedience must be exercised in service to a larger, strategic vision. Without that unifying plan, getting arrested just becomes social media fodder. Additionally, arresting legislators could do irreparable harm to the institution and lead to even worse policy outcomes for Texans.

Last but not least, we discussed challenging the arrest warrants in court. But why? This lawsuit is a short-term play with long-term consequences. Breaking quorum should be hard. Given it’s dramatic effect on the legislative process, quorum breakers should have to risk arrest, flee the state, and make sacrifices. If breaking quorum is easy then it will become the default. That’s exactly what happened to the filibuster. Once an extreme tactic that was seldom used because it required such physical sacrifice is now the default in Washington because it no longer costs a thing. When the lawsuit was filed, I did not add my name as a plaintiff. 

I love my fellow quorum breakers who have made different choices during this process. Many of my Democratic colleagues are much smarter and wiser than me. I have limited experience as a sophomore legislator and limited experience as a white, cisgender man. There are things my Black and Brown colleagues know that I never will. There are things my LGBTQ+ colleagues know that I never will. There are things my female colleagues know that I never will. I deeply respect their tough minds and their tender hearts, which is why I waited to share these reflections publicly until after the quorum break ended.

* * *

Ultimately, I’ve come to see quorum breaking as an important form of direct action rather than an effective legislative practice. Breaking quorum can raise awareness, inspire activism, and protest abuses of power. But it can’t replace legislating.

We still have to believe in democracy even when we lose. Republicans won statewide elections in a year with historic turnout. They have a right to govern even when that includes bills we consider immoral. The problem is: the voter suppression bill is trying to rig those elections in Republicans’ favor. That’s why my Democratic colleagues and I utilized the most extreme tool in our legislative toolbox to pressure Congress to intervene.

But for Texas progressives, breaking quorum can’t be a substitute for winning elections. We have to earn the right to govern. We have to beat Republicans fair and square at the ballot box. The reason we’ve been pushing for a federal voting rights act is to ensure it’s a fair fight.

In a democracy, the majority has the authority to govern within the constraints of the Constitution while the minority has the right to frustrate their efforts within the constraints of the rules. Both roles demand responsibility and restraint. Trump Republicans have shown very little of both over the last five years.

But if we’re not careful, progressives can succumb to the same anti-democratic tendencies that have taken over the Republican Party. Scripture tells us: “do not repay evil with evil.” We can’t mirror fascism. We can’t respond to irresponsibility with more irresponsibility. We can’t do violence to democracy to save it. The ends don’t justify the means.

It’s often called the American Experiment, but democracy is really an experiment in human civilization. Can diverse people make decisions together nonviolently and live together in peace? Democracy is the experiment to test that hypothesis. It’s the experiment to which President Lincoln and Reverend King gave their lives. It’s the experiment for which countless brave Americans have fought and bled—from Selma to Normandy. It’s called an “experiment” because it could fail.

The voter suppression bill was a threat to that experiment, which is why I broke quorum in the first place. But an indefinite quorum break is also a kind of threat to that experiment, which is why I restored quorum when we had assurances a federal act would override the voter suppression bill. There comes a point when a quorum break is hurting democracy more than it’s helping. I feared we were quickly approaching that point.

I know some of you may feel hopeless right now. But at the end of the day, this quorum break was a profound act of hope. We left behind our families, our jobs, and our beloved state because we still believe in this experiment, in this democracy, in this country of ours. We still believe in a government of, by, and for the people. We still believe in what we can be—together. I don’t know what will happen. But if we lose, it won’t be because we lost hope.

James Talarico is the State Representative for District 52 in Round Rock 

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