Usually, you have to look back to find the pivotal moments—to find the times “when everything changed.” But sitting in the Texas House in early May, on the body’s first working-Saturday, it was obvious to everyone that we were watching a key moment of the legislative session.
“Craig Eiland just threw his rulebook!” the reporter next to me exclaimed. I turned to see the always polite, always proper Democrat from Galveston,the guy stands when ladies leave a table, looking ready for a fight. I’m not sure where his rulebook landed.
Over four hours of fight over the rules, the Republican supermajority had had enough of the Democrats’ obstructionism. Since the beginning of the session, Democrats have used technical points of order to stall and disrupt proceeding on major bills. On that first Saturday, members arrived to discover yet another point of order—this one on major education legislation from the night before—had been sustained. Meanwhile with only 113 of the body’s 150 members present, the 20 Democrats present realized they had some actual power. If they walked out, there would be too few members to continue under the rules.
And that was the boiling point. Suddenly there were calls to lock the doors and keep the Democrats from leaving. That motion got withdrawn, only to be replaced by motions to suspend rules on bills—which would effectively remove points of order from the Democrats’ meager arsenal of legislative weapons. Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who was elected with Democratic support to usher in a less partisan era, refused to recognize chief Democratic bombthrower, Trey Martinez-Fischer. Then he chose to recognize Republican Rep. Brandon Creighton for a motion to “move the previous question” on a controversial tort-reform bill—legislative-speak for an immediate vote.
That’s when Eiland took to the microphone. “you’re about to make a bad day that we’ve had here much worse,” he pleaded with his colleagues. “People are testy, people are tired but that does not justify breaking the rules , wiping away the rules.” But wipe away they did. The controversial bill passed with no amendments and no debate.
It was the end of an era.
The Republicans had decided to unleash their full strength. Even if they choose not to use it again this session, the GOP has shown their weaponry—and how they can respond if pushed. Of course, the Democrats were undoubtedly obstructing the process—almost all their points of order were technical and somewhat trivial. With more than two-thirds of the seats in the House, the Republicans are well within their rights to suspend the rules. Likewise, Speaker Straus can choose not to recognize a member.
But that doesn’t make any of it less of a break with traditions and trusts in the body. The rules, however, have always been central to how the House runs. At the beginning of the session, the House as a whole debates and decides how they’ll operate. The Republicans voted for those rules at the beginning of the session. Threatening to suspend the rules and then choosing to pass bills without debate—that’s more than just a violation of trust. It comes close to violating some democratic principals.
Furthermore, Texas has always been a state that makes it hard to pass laws. Bills run a gauntlet and most of them die in the process—from getting a committee hearing to getting the votes to pass out of the committee, from getting onto the legislative calendar to winning a majority vote on the House floor, not once but twice. While the minority party members are unlikely to pass major bills, they still have the power to kill bills. That’s probably because this state government was built to minimize lawmaking—after all, the Legislature only meets for 140 days every two years.
Across the hall in the Senate, Republicans had made a similar decision, earlier in the week, when passing their version of the budget. After days of negotiations, the Republicans got tired of trying to compromise with Democrats. They chose to abandon the tradition of requiring two-thirds support on bills, and thanks to a caveat their rules, passed the contentious budget with only GOP votes.
Ironically the Republicans, the party of small government, has drastically expanded their power to create more laws. House Democrats have so few members this session that they could never expect to play a major role in creating legislation. Their only power was in stopping bills—and even that was based on finding technical problems. Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats clung to the two-thirds rule, which made them an integral part of the process.
Now the Republicans in both chambers have effectively said the Democrats only have whatever power they want to give them—and even that little power can be taken away. Republicans may not actually act on those threats again. Perhaps the rest of the session won’t see another moment like this.
But Democrats have been told decisively that they’re going to get steamrolled. Even if they had major points of order, Straus may simply not recognize points of order or rules violations. We could see the House start passing bills right and left, by threatening to use such maneuvers. Or we could see the Democrats turn desperate, looking for any way to blow up the session. None of it’s likely to be pretty.
But there’s no going back now.