You can’t teach an old House new tricks. At least not when it comes to its own rules. The House rules, which determine how the chamber conducts debate and passes various types of bills, are a minefield of technicalities, but how the rules work can often have far-reaching impacts on the session. Since the November elections, the Tea Party movement has seemingly ushered in an era of increased transparency, in which mobilized activists could influence formerly “in-House” procedures like the speaker’s race. It looked like this might be a session in which the Tea Party could rule on issues previously left to the preference of the members.
But as the House rules debate marches on, it’s beginning to seem like such predictions failed to calculate the incredible power of tradition and institutional memory in the House. Shortly after state Rep. Burt Solomons laid out his version of the House rules, amendments started to pour in.
It didn’t take long for state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, to court controversy. Christian has visibly worked to be a leader of both Tea Partiers and social conservatives, and this was his first chance to take action. His first amendment sought to fast-track voter ID legislation, bringing it to the floor of the House without going through the usual committee process. As an emergency item, Christian pushed for the House not to waste time waiting for members’ committee assignments to come out. This, he argued, would be more efficient. It certainly would curry favor with groups, like the Tea Party, who have been calling for such measures.
But potential political points weren’t enough. Christian met a fearsome foe in state Rep. Warren Chisum—a fellow Republican who previously ran for Speaker of the House on an agenda of hardline conservatism. While Chisum supports voter ID legislation, he was upset by the change in process, which would cut out public participation. “You’re in favor of cutting out public participation in the bill?” Chisum asked.
Christian argued that the bill had already seen plenty of public input, between the last legislative session and general feedback during the interim. Chisum disagreed. ”I just think every legislative session ought to stand on its own,” Chisum said. “I suspect we haven’t heard it all—25 million people occupy Texas.” Christian wound up with a paltry 13 votes.
Christian was hardly deterred. He tried again only a few minutes later with a different shade of red meat. He offered an amendment to undo the pledge card system by which the Speaker of the House gains support. The amendment was a clear effort to dredge up the movement by some hardline conservative and Tea Party groups to oust current Speaker Joe Straus. They failed in that effort—and Christian failed in his.
Once again, it was his fellow Republicans who stood against him. While GOP state Rep. Jim Keffer is not the visible and vehement social conservative that Chisum is, his words grabbed the attention of the House. ”Playing this gotcha game can only get you so far,” he told Christian. “I don’t understand why you want to do this, as far as the institution goes.” And in a deja-vu moment, Christian only got 13 votes on his second effort as well.
The debate is continuing—we’ve heard arguments on everything from transparency in the Legislative Budget Board to dress code. So far, there hasn’t been a single party-line vote. Instead, the members seem to be doing their best to keep the rules debate as non-partisan as possible.
In other news, Christian has stayed away from the mike.