For most of the session, the plotline featured an uncharacteristically demure House carrying out its business—slowly but surely—while the Senate went berserk over what Republicans called voter ID and Democrats called voter suppression. That all changed when the Senate’s voter ID bill showed up on the House legislative calendar, just five days before the deadline—midnight on May 26—for passing bills into law.
Democrats would have filibustered voter ID, which they said would block thousands of Texans from voting, if House rules hadn’t forbade it. Instead, they resorted to a tactic called (for reasons long forgotten) “chubbing.” Basically, chubbing means stalling: seizing the microphone to talk for the maximum allowable time about every bill that comes up. By stretching hours into days, the Democrats could push voter ID past the deadline, killing the bill without a vote. But since the bills scheduled for consideration before voter ID were almost all “local and consent” bills—routine legislation usually dispatched in a matter of hours—they’d have to get creative.
Democrats were willing to consider more pressing matters in the waning days of the session; they wanted to vote on tax cuts for disabled veterans, for one, and insurance reform. But the Republican leadership had placed those bills on the calendar after voter ID, and Democrats couldn’t muster the two-thirds vote they’d need to bring those substantial bills up first.
With neither side willing to budge, and almost nothing of substance to debate, the chatter often devolved into pure gibberish as the chubbing stretched out over five long days. Representatives who weren’t blathering into the microphone had to pass the time with activities other than legislating.
What follows is an abbreviated eyewitness account of what happens when “the people’s work” turns into a big pile of chub.
Day 1: Friday, May 22
As the chubbing commences, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, declares on his blog: “So begins the period of pon farr.” For those not entrenched in the Star Trek universe, Peña described it as a time when “normal expected rules of the natural order are suspended so that the combatants can exercise their latent hostilities.” On Star Trek, pon farr is a periodically recurring surge of hormones that causes uncontrollable aggression in Vulcans, throwing them into a bloody fever that proves fatal unless they mate, participate in a “passion fight” to the death, or do some truly intensive meditation.
Legislators are not a particularly meditative bunch, so this does not bode well.
One exchange encapsulates the inanity of the day’s discussions. El Paso Democrat Joe Pickett and Rob Eissler, a pun-loving Republican from The Woodlands, get rolling on a routine bill to let a municipal utility district (MUD) in Harris County sell bonds to build new recreational facilities. The two quickly discover that MUD rhymes with many other acronyms, such as PUD (Planned Unit Development) and HUD (Housing and Urban Development). Joining them about eight minutes in:
Eissler: If we had pasture out there, we could worry about cuds.
Pickett: We’d have cuds in the PUDs, which borrowed from a HUD, in the district of a MUD.
Eissler: Right, and if you open a beer joint, you’ll have suds.
Pickett: And if they were flat, they’d be duds. And if you had a cow, and you could mix it, it would be Milk Duds.
While others babble, Peña notices that there is no tilde above the “n” in his name on the House vote board. He mentions this to Sergeant-at-Arms Rod Welsh, who has a corrected nameplate ready to go in 30 minutes. Peña installs the new nameplate himself, making him perhaps the most productive legislator of the day.
Day 2: Saturday, May 23
As the Democrats and Republicans return to the House floor from separate caucus meetings, Republican Tommy Merritt of Longview gives his account of the GOP caucus to reporters. Chairman Larry Taylor, he says, “reported to us that he offered a deal to the Democrats and the [Republican] caucus turned him down.” As if on a schoolyard, fellow Republican representatives, unhappy with this disclosure, surround Merritt, taunting him, calling him a “minority of one” and shouting, “You’re not speaking for us!” (It will later turn out that Merritt’s account is accurate.)
Once the chubbing resumes, Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, gets on a caffeine-themed roll, repeatedly referring to herself as “coffee” and her white Republican colleague, Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton of Mauriceville, as “cream,” elaborating on how well the two go together. Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, joins in, asking, “I just wondered if we could add some brown sugar?”
Day 3: Sunday, May 24
As the chubbing drones on, Larry Taylor, Republican from Friendswood, stands silently next to the microphone holding a sign reading, “Texas Held Hostage—Day 3.” Mark Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat, stands on the other side holding one that declares, “Voting Rights Are Worth Fighting For.”
Houston Democrat Al Edwards steps to the mike with an important parliamentary inquiry: Where is his large, white cowboy hat? He has already made this inquiry several times and, though the joke is growing old, will keep doing it until the final day of the session—at which point it will be revealed that Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, who spends the chubfest repeatedly making the same dramatic appeal for veterans’ tax cuts, had stolen it.
Late in the evening, representatives crowd around for the day’s most exciting moment as Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, lays out his bill establishing the proper way to fold the Texas flag and Eddie Rodriquez, D-Austin, demonstrates. “There are several ways you can fold a flag,” Dunnam opines, “but the Texas flag is unique.” So, too, are Texas legislators.
Day 4: Monday, May 25
With a ruined weekend behind him, normally even-tempered Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, finally speaks to the press, calling the Democrats “obstructionists” who will have some “explaining” to do when all is said and done. Never one to be left out of a fight, Dunnam, the Democratic caucus chair, hits back at the Republicans. “Someone who controls the agenda, and decides when we are going to hear bills, can’t complain when they set the bills that they say are so important on the last few days,” he says.
While Dunnam and Straus bicker, the other Vulcans come to a bill that would water down the “top 10 percent” rule designed to increase diversity at Texas’ top-tier universities. A new chub strategy kicks in, as Democrats add numerous amendments to the bill, discuss them at length and then withdraw them. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Democrat Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, a liberal stalwart, takes the opportunity to elaborate on a topic he claims other representatives are afraid to discuss: the joys of white-male privilege. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, calls Burnam “the most minority non-minority” he’s ever seen.
Day 5: Tuesday, May 26
Convinced that voter ID has been pushed back far enough that it won’t come up for a vote, many Democrats are willing to end the chubfest—but not Richard Raymond, D-Laredo. Raymond commits to solo chubbing until he’s absolutely certain that voter ID is dead.
A little late to the leadership fight, Larry Taylor, the GOP caucus chair, feeds the media some tasty quotes about why his party has refused to suspend the rules to take up important legislation. “You don’t deal with kidnappers and terrorists because, if you do that, then you’ll do it over and over again,” he says. Under questioning, Taylor insists he is not calling Democrats terrorists or kidnappers. So what is he calling them? “We can use ‘whiny kids,’” Taylor growls.
With just a few hours till midnight, voter ID is dead. Which is too bad, because Angie Chen Button, a first-term Republican from Garland, has just figured out how to save it. She personally distributes a press release to perplexed reporters detailing an amendment she has just added to the bill, addressing concerns about voter ID expressed by Asian Americans. Chen Button’s determination might be admirable, but her timing is a little off.
With midnight at hand, House Democrats still have a chance to approve changes that would allow Texas to pull in more than $555 million in federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance. So Republicans enjoy a little payback, ending the five-day siege with their own round of chubbing.
Midnight strikes. The gavel comes down. A host of important bills are dead. And so ends the period of pon farr.