Sometimes the right questions to ask at the Texas Legislature are the simple ones, like: Dear god, what’s happening? And, Dear god, why is this happening? And, Dear god, will this be over soon? The answer to the last question, at least, is simple: no. The bad things that have been happening are now set to continue to happen, indefinitely. Congratulations!
The Legislature was set to conclude Monday, and there’s still no real reason why it shouldn’t. A budget deal has been struck, and the two chambers have it well within their power to conclude every other piece of must-pass business left before them, like the bills that keep state agencies functioning.
Then something extraordinary happened. In the course of a few hours, House Speaker Joe Straus vowed his chamber would no longer bend to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s will on his prized bathroom bill. “The House has compromised enough on this issue,” Straus said at a press conference, announcing that the watered-down version passed by the House was the most his body was willing to do. “It’s absurd that bathroom bills have taken on greater urgency than fixing our school finance system.”
Patrick gives one-man press conferences like this all the time — albeit ones where the press is rarely allowed to ask questions — but it’s a very uncommon move for Straus, who prefers to let House members speak for themselves. It was evidently a statement of strongly held principle. But it was also an enormous flipped bird at Patrick. So an hour or so later, the lite guv called his own press conference, where he was flanked by most Republican senators. Exceeding his constitutional authority by a fair margin, he effectively called a special session, a power that has been traditionally held by the governor, and then blamed Straus for being solely responsible for the actions that Patrick was vowing to personally take. Wait, what?
Let’s back up. A special session is a 30-day legislative term called by the governor to address business in between the biennial regular sessions, or when lawmakers fail to do critical stuff in the time allotted to them. The governor alone sets the items the Legislature is allowed to work on, which has traditionally made it a powerful tool for the governor.
Patrick has inverted that. He’s now vowing to blow up critical legislation if two bills that are important to him — his bathroom bill and his property tax bill — are not passed, forcing the governor to call a special session and all but demanding that his two pet issues be added to the agenda. Though Abbott has said he would call a special session if a suitable bathroom bill didn’t pass, he’s also showed no great enthusiasm for the bills. In short, Patrick is opening up a trapdoor under state government. It’s not unlike what Senator Ted Cruz did when he shut down the federal government in 2013.
Patrick is counting on the fact that the political landscape is different in a special session. In the regular session, the House regularly kills bills it doesn’t like quietly, or collectively, so that no one person takes the blame. In a special session, that can’t happen, because all eyes are trained on the bill that the governor has explicitly called for. It’s a more fertile environment for pushing toxic and controversial measures through, like the abortion bill Wendy Davis filibustered, the subject of the last special session in 2013.
In other words, the bathroom bill that would emerge from a special is likely to be much more discriminatory than the version the House just passed, and it’s going to be a lot harder to stop. And there’s also no telling what else could be added to the call — abortion was added to the call halfway through, for reasons solely to do with political positioning.
Members of the House believe Patrick’s been angling for a special session, which would give him a great showcase for his future ambitions. Patrick would have you believe that he’s acting out of abiding concern for the privacy and safety of Texas women.
“We are representing the people of Texas,” Patrick said. He is the vox populi of the millions of Texans crying out for toilet policy reform. “Women want to be protected in bathrooms, government bathrooms, across this state,” he said. “Every poll clearly says that.”
Then he rounded on Straus, who he said was using the language of leftists. “Instead of siding with the people of Texas” and “Republicans of Texas,” Straus has decided to “side with Barack Obama.” He bore the blame for what was about to happen. “Joe Straus is causing the special session,” he said. “I’m just letting it happen.”
The tortured logic behind that last bit is this: Patrick says Straus left Patrick the opportunity to force a special session by not passing certain must-pass sunset bills that the Senate could now easily pass. Because he did, the special session is Straus’ fault. This is, of course, a toddler’s understanding of causality, but it’s one that Patrick uses frequently. It’s the “stop hitting yourself” theory of governance.
What’s next? No one knows. We’ll all be crossing the Rubicon together. Any number of outcomes are possible. The special might not happen, or Abbott and Patrick might somehow split, limiting the scope of the special. (That would require a measure of political independence and courage from Abbott that we haven’t yet seen.)
But two things are likely true. Most importantly, the hundreds and thousands of transgender people who spent countless hours at the Legislature this session asking lawmakers not to hurt and demean them will be asked to do it again, in the June heat. And the risk that Patrick might now do to Texas what North Carolina did to itself a few years ago is now alive and well. That poses a threat to many powerful interests in Texas, which means the coming session has the potential to become an important inflection point not just for those targeted by Patrick’s bills but for the state and its Republican Party. What does the summer hold for us? Diplo knows.