Transparency, Seniority on Reps. Minds During House Rules Debate

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Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) looks at HR 4 and the proposed amendments at his desk on the House floor Wednesday.
Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) looks at HR 4 and the proposed amendments at his desk on the House floor Wednesday.  Beth Cortez-Neavel

The House adopted its rules for the 83rd legislative session on Monday, and the theme of the day was “transparency.”

Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo) brought House Resolution 4, the proposed rules that will govern the House, to the floor, and lawmakers spent most of Monday debating a long list of amendments.

Rep. Smithee proposed the first amendment to HR 4, which will bring added technology to the legislative process. Members of the public wishing to testify at any House committee hearing will now be allowed to use iPads to sign up electronically to testify, rather than on paper as in the past. The public may sign up to speak from one of the many proposed iPad kiosks that will be installed around the Capitol. The monitoring of witnesses will also be done electronically; now you can track which witnesses have spoken at a specific hearing without having to journey to that committee clerk’s office. This is a small technological step forward for the House, and something Rep. Smithee said he hopes will make committee hearings run more smoothly.

The most significant change to the House rules was an amendment by  Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) that sparked fiery debate. King’s amendment, which eventually passed, would raise the standard by which a bill could be subject to a point of order. In effect, King overturned the current house rule that a bill may be killed on a clerical mistake. “Do you want the fate of your bill to be determined solely on its substance,” King asked, “or do you want a minor procedural, clerical matter that has nothing to do with the substance of the legislation that you’re advocating… to result in the defeat of your initiative?”

That may sound good, but points of order are valuable parliamentary tools, which lawmakers, especially those in the minority party, employ to kill legislation they don’t like.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) argued that passing such an amendment would allow for less transparency in governmental affairs. Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston) further argued against the amendment, saying that the rule was particularly useful during the last week of the session and could allow for a controversial bill to be halted.

King’s amendment passed largely along party lines, though Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) voted against the amendment contrary to most members his own party. Thanks to King’s amendment, House Democrats (and all other House members, for that matter) may have a tougher time killing bills this session.

Simpson brought two amendments that he said would make the legislative process more transparent. Both amendments he proposed on Monday were shut down by an overwhelming majority. He first brought to the floor a proposal requiring the House “report the true time that we convene, adjourn, recess, stand at ease,” Simpson said. As Simpson noted, the time recorded in the House journal isn’t always the actual time that lawmakers begin and end their work.

Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) asked, as she looked down her nose at Rep. Simpson’s plebeian one-session experience in the House, “Are you not aware Rep. Simpson that we have 140 days in which to do our work and there are times at 3:00 in the morning that we need to go ahead and recess and pick that clock up the next morning in order to finish?”

She continued objecting to Simpson’s rather straightforward amendment by invoking the Almighty. “Even God stopped the sun for Joshua in a particular battle.” And then Rep. Riddle added, “I think, representative, that when you’re here longer and you understand the process, you will appreciate the process that we’ve had so that we can make the best use of the time that we are allotted to do our job, that there are times when it’s prudent and wise to stop the clock.” After that beatdown and a few more punches from other representatives, the amendment was left for dead. Despite the rough treatment, Simpson still walked back to his seat with a smile on his face.

Undeterred, he brought another amendment to the floor later in the day—this one also ostensibly to create more transparency in the legislative process. The amendment would have joint Senate-House conference committees “ask permission” of the House when radically changing the substance of a bill in question. Smithee said the amendment attempted to impose rules on the Senate, and he tabled it. With that, Simpson’s exertions toward “transparency for a free and open government” seemed in vain.