The Strange Death and Legacy of House Bill 4105

Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriage in February.
Kelsey Jukam
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values, right, stares at a cardboard wedding cake celebrating Texas' ban on same-sex marriage in February.

There was a lot of posturing Friday about the death of House Bill 4105, a fairly bizarre anti-gay marriage bill from state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) that fell victim to a major House procedural deadline Thursday night.

Bell, who was one of the reps to cut that famous anti-gay wedding cake a couple months back, aimed to establish another last line of defense against the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate Texas’ constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. His bill, which was co-authored by so many GOP reps that they alone would have guaranteed passage, would have turned the current gay marriage ban to a super-duper superban.

It was a very dumb bill from the start, and mismanaged by its supporters even by the low standards of the Texas Legislature. It was filed very late—literally on the last day a bill could be filed, March 13—and then it sat around. By the time it was eligible to come to the House floor, it was so far back on the calendar that it became easy for Democrats to talk and talk and talk—a tactic known as “chubbing,” for some probably ungodly reason—until the midnight Thursday deadline for considering yet-unpassed House bills.

Immediately, the posturing began. Democrats celebrated the death of 4105 as a triumph of legislative cunning and tenacity. Conservatives bashed House leadership while simultaneously claiming the bill’s existence was evidence they were “#StillWinning,” even if the bill got hara-kiri’ed. On Friday, the overwhelming majority of the House GOP caucus pledged their undying support of traditional marriage in a flowery letter. They wanted the bill to have passed so bad, they said.

It makes perfect sense for the Democrats to claim total victory here, especially since they will have few other chances this session. Gay marriage and gay rights are a huge issue for the party, though it’s hard to predict the practical consequences of Bell’s bill given that the Supreme Court soon might effectively sweep away the relevant statutes. And Democrats certainly were a major reason why the bill died: Chubbing isn’t as tough as filibustering, but they did smart work over the last week to slow the process just enough.

But if they hit a home run here, it’s because they got an easy pitch. Most House GOPers, whatever their other faults, still know a stupid bill when they see one. There’s a general level of acknowledgement in many quarters—even among some social conservatives—that the increasingly Sisyphean struggle against gay marriage is a lost cause, and a distraction from causes the godly folk really care about, like abortion. (Importantly, the business lobby, the Legislature’s one true Almighty Power, is tired of these shenanigans.)

In other words, if House Republicans wanted this to pass, it would have. There’s so much House leadership can do to a bill when it really cares.

But conservatives who want to pin this on House Speaker Joe Straus are ignoring their own glaring failures here. The bill was filed when the session was nearly half-over. Bell’s original gay marriage bill, HB 623, went nowhere, then was dropped and re-emerged, weakened, as 4105.

If anti-gay ringleaders like Jonathan Saenz wanted to maximize their leverage over reluctant pols, there were many other things they could have done, starting by using the more sympathetic Senate. They could enlist Sen. Brian Birdwell or Sen. Donna Campbell to carry a companion to Bell’s bill. Now the framing is different, and you have a lifeboat if Bell’s bill tanks. Instead, they launched a hastily folded paper airplane into anti-aircraft fire. Well done, fellas.

Ah, but Saenz would tell you, we’re still winning. Look at all those names that signed up to coauthor the bill. Look at the letter today, signed by 93 of the House’s 98 Republicans. Does he believe it, or is he putting on a good face? Saenz is, for whatever else he is, not dumb. It would be wise to suspect the latter.

That letter, though. Here’s a sampling of the prose:

Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to experience since our admission as the 28th state within these United States of America.

We, therefore, affirm the preservation of the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife, and pledge to uphold and defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

This is a bit like forgetting to water your friend’s plants when she’s out of town, only to send an essay upon her return emphasizing the importance that you place in the concept of plants, and the value of keeping them alive.

None of this is to say that other anti-gay amendments or bills won’t pass in the coming weeks, or that a majority of Republicans in the Legislature are secretly pro-gay marriage. Far from it. If a vote occurs on some of the provisions of HB 4105, offered as amendments to other bills, they could easily pass. But the events of the last few days are evidence of the writing on the wall for Saenz & company.

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Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 6:37 pm CST
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