Wisconsin protests: Can sergeants-at-arms really drag legislators back to work?

Wisconsin protests: Can sergeants-at-arms really drag legislators back to work?

Wisconsin protests: Can sergeants-at-arms really drag legislators back to work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 18 2011 4:20 PM

Don't Make Me Count to Three, Mr. Senator!

Can sergeants-at-arms really drag legislators back to work?

Protest in Wisconsin. Click image to expand.
Wisconsin protests

Fourteen Democratic state senators fled the capitol in Wisconsin on Thursday to prevent the legislature from voting on the governor's budget. As the legislature's attendance authority, the sergeants-at-arms was called in to round up the rogue politicians. Do sergeants-at-arms ever have to use physical force?

It happens. The sergeants-at-armsfor some state legislatures, as well as that of the federal government, have the explicit authority to place truant members under arrest. In Wisconsin, however, neither law nor precedent makes clear whether the sergeant is allowed to slap the cuffs on a politician or whether he has to rely on his powers of persuasion. (Wisconsin's governor tried to circumvent the ambiguity on Thursday by ordering the state police to arrest the absentees.)


The U.S. Senate's sergeants-at-armshas gotten physical on occasion. In 1988, during the Republican-led filibuster of a campaign finance reform bill, Sen. Robert Byrd ordered Sergeant-at-Arms Henry K. Guigni to round up absent senators. Guigni found Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon in his office and convinced him to return peacefully. However, to demonstrate his opposition to the move, Packwood refused to step across the threshold into the Senate chamber. Guigni and his deputies had to carry him.

Sometimes guile is better than brute force. When Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley tired of Southern senators filibustering an anti-poll tax bill in 1942, he sent Sergeant-at-Arms Chesley Jurney to bring back absent legislators and re-establish a quorum. Sen. Kenneth McKellar refused to answer Jurney's phone calls at his Mayflower hotel room, but the maid let Jurney in. The clever sergeant simply told McKellar he was urgently needed, neglecting to explain why. The confused senator didn't realize what was going on until they arrived at the Capitol building.

State sergeants-at-armshave a tougher time of it, because their authority extends only to state lines. Smart runaways simply cross the border, as many Wisconsin legislators did on Thursday. In 2003, Texas Democrats left the state to prevent a vote on a redistricting measure. The governor called in not only the sergeant-at-arms but also the state police and the Texas Rangers. U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay even tried to enlist the help of the Federal Aviation Administration, a move that landed him before the House ethics committee.

Because sergeants-at-arms are part of general parliamentary procedure, municipal governments and even private organizations employ them, too. In a particularly bizarre case from 1900, the New York City Council tried to send its sergeant-at-arms after some missing members, but he didn't respond to the call. They soon learned that he was managing a prize fight, and the council president had to send assistant sergeants to find the sergeant.


A sergeant-at-arms is much more than a truancy officer. In addition to general security, welcoming diplomats, and throatily introducing the president at the State of the Union, he or she must break up squabbles on the House and Senate floors. In the Senate, this is rarely necessary, since few real fights have ever broken out. (Although Delaware Sen. William Salisbury did threaten to shoot the sergeant-at-arms in 1863.) The Senate's most famous attack, Preston Brooks' savage caning of Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856, occurred when the Senate was not in session, and the sergeant wasn't present.

Fisticuffs are more common in the House. During the 19th century, there were nearly 200 altercations between House members. To restore order, the sergeant-at-arms raises the official ebony-and-silver mace. Although he occasionally had to physically intervene in fights, no federal sergeant has ever used the mace as a weapon.

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Explainer thanks Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.

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Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.