Senators: Skip Work During a Shutdown, and You'll be Arrested

A bipartisan bill from Colorado's senators would establish stringent guidelines for members' attendance during any future shutdowns.

It's only natural to want to avoid your colleagues when the going gets tough at work. But Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet want to make sure that's impossible for senators thinking about skipping town during contentious government agency shutdowns.

The bipartisan bill, introduced Thursday and called the "Shutdown Accountability Resolution," aims to encourage negotiations between senators when any agency is shut down. Hourly attendance calls would be mandatory between 8 a.m. and midnight each day of a shutdown, and if the majority of senators aren't present on the floor for a call, the missing legislators can be arrested by the sergeant-at-arms at the direction of their peers.

In an interview Wednesday with The Denver Post, Gardner, a Republican, said lawmakers need to actually be together to work through solutions.

"You can't do it by flying home. You can't do it by going to your respective political corners," Gardner said. "You can only do it when you're here together, at work."

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The bill's parameters build on an extant procedure in Senate rules that can compel senators to come to the floor or eventually risk arrest, called a "live quorum." Per the Constitution, a simple majority of senators must be present in Senate chambers in order for there to be a quorum, which is necessary for the body to conduct its regular operations. The Senate can—and does—circumvent this rule by just assuming a quorum exists, without taking roll.

But in the event that the majority leader wants all senators in the chamber for a debate, he or she can request a live quorum call. If not all senators are present, the majority leader can make a motion to tell the sergeant at arms to request the attendance of missing senators. If they fail to show up, the leader can create a motion for the sergeant at arms to "compel" senators to come in—with arrest as a last resort.

This full procedure—from "live" quorum call through senators' arrest—has rarely been followed.

But the twist with this shutdown measure is that arrest warrants are built into the bill; warrants will be issued to senators if they do not come to the floor after multiple urgings from their colleagues. First, their attendance must be formally requested, then senators in the chamber can order the sergeant-at-arms to "compel" them to come to work. After that, senators have one hour before warrants are issued. Truant senators would then be brought to the Senate floor.

Senators who have a compelling reason for not appearing—because of a hospitalization, for example—won't be penalized, but those refusing to come to the floor will be. Each excuse's validity will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

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Although AWOL senators historically haven't posed a huge problem, scheduled congressional recesses have created tension during major budget deals in the past couple of years. In February, the House and Senate both recessed for a week just before the deadline for funding the Homeland Security Department, and a shutdown seemed imminent. And congressional recesses loomed during the months-long 2013 shutdown debate, as summer, Thanksgiving, and December holiday breaks cut into the negotiating schedule.

"No other enterprise that I have ever worked in produces the kinds of self-inflicted wounds that this institution has been producing over the last several years," Bennet told the Post Wednesday in an interview alongside Gardner. "And this is a way of trying to address that."