Chisum Trail
Sat July 5, 2008 12:13 pm

Oh, no, not again. Today’s papers carry the dismaying news that the chairman of the House Appropriations committee is bent on making a spectacle of himself – and the House – one more time. He has vowed to reintroduce a new version of HB 2684 from the 80th Legislature, which lengthens the waiting period before a divorce becomes final from 60 days to two years. The longer waiting period can be avoided if the couple takes a two-day marital counseling course that teaches conflict management, communication skills, and forgiveness skills.

Why is it that legislators insist on meddling in things that are none of their damned business? What unhappy couples want to unjoin, let no man try to put back together. The obvious fact here is that if couples wanted their marriage to be saved, they would already have sought marital counseling. Any competent counselor would have instructed them in the arts of conflict management, communication skills, and forgiveness skills. The remedy proposed by the bill is a waste of time–of the couple’s time and of the Legislature’s time.

As the result of this and other questionable legislation that Mr. Chisum carried last session, he ended up on Texas Monthly’s Ten Worst list. I hope it doesn’t happen again, but I fear the Worst. After publication, Mr. Chisum sent me the following letter. My response to him follows.

According to your Best & Worst Legislators article, it’s bad to believe that marriage should be saved if at all possible. It’s bad for people to learn how to forgive, and it’s bad for the Bible as literature be offered in high school. If you define those beliefs as bad, then I’m rotten to the core. Howevere, what you so blithely left out of your profile of me are the facts: marriages that remain intact (with the exception of abusive situations) create happier, healthier families; forgiveness is not easy, but when extended can have dramatically positive effects; and recent surveys have shown that English professors and teachers believe that Biblical knowledge confers a major educational advantage to those who have it. I would rather be on the ten worst list because I stood by my beliefs and maintained my integrity than sell out to get on the ten best list. Regarding you listing me as one of the ten worst, let me just say that I extend to you my sincere forgiveness.

This was my response, which I posted in the blog, along with his letter:

“Warren Chisum is not on the Worst list because he did something egregious. He’s not that kind of legislator, nor is he that kind of man. He’s certainly not on the Worst list because he wanted to save marriages and authorize teaching of the Bible in high school. He is on the list because he ran afoul of the maxim, ‘Of those to whom much is given, much is asked.’ As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Chisum achieved the pinnacle of legislative power and influence. My belief is that lawmakers who reach that level have an obligation to be role models. It is their duty to provide the example to younger members of what it takes to become a respected policymaker. I didn’t manufacture that belief this year. It has become ingrained in the way that I look at the Legislature, from watching the very best members operate over many sessions: Bill Ratliff, David Sibley, Steve Wolens, Rob Junell, Paul Sadler, Bill Messer, Stan Schlueter, Kenny Marchant. Here’s the standard as I believe that these members practiced it: You can’t mix your policy agenda and your personal agenda. One of the reasons is that when a legislator in a position of power takes a divisive social issue to the floor, or a lobby bill, or a vendor bill, ordinary members feel under pressure to vote for it, to avoid reprisals. Do I think Warren Chisum is a vindictive person? Certainly not. Do members worry about crossing the chairman of Appropriations? Certainly. Chisum did things you couldn’t have made Bill Ratliff or Paul Sadler do with a cattle prod. He moved the previous question to cut off debate when there were only four amendments left to be discussed. He lost. He carried a vendor bill (to provide drivers’ records at DPS to insurance companies) to the floor as a favor to a lobbyist, lost, arranged to reconsider the vote the next day, and lost again. After the Public Education committee rewrote his Bible study bill to strengthen its academic aspects, he tried to substitute his version, which the committee had viewed as flawed, on the floor. He lost again. I was on the floor for these episodes, and the members I talked to were shocked. I wrote in the Best and Worst Legislators article that ‘Chisum squandered his gravitas.’ This may seem like a victimless crime, in which the harm is done only to the perpetrator. But that’s not the case. When respected senior legislators expose themselves to defeat and repudiation, everybody loses. That’s why Warren Chisum is on the Ten Worst list, and why I am sad to see him there.”

* * * *

When the Best and Worst Legislators article was first contemplated in 1973, the people involved in writing the story–primarily William Broyles, Griffin Smith, and Richard West, all of whom were quite familiar with the legislative process (I was still working in the Senate)–decided that our standard for judging legislators should be the way the members judge each other. There is a collective understanding of what makes a good legislator and what makes a bad one. That standard has evolved over the last 35 years, but in general it starts with respect for the process. What Mr. Chisum did last session was not appropriate leadership for someone at the very top of the legislative pyramid. You don’t try to sneak through a vendor bill; you don’t shut off your colleagues from debate, and you don’t try to enact your personal moral beliefs into law, no matter how much you believe in them. You guard your reputation and your stature. He didn’t do that, and other members who I respect were dismayed that he hadn’t. I will be the first to say that Mr. Chisum is a very able and sincere legislator. He has a quick, agile mind in floor debate. He has a good feel for the mood of the House at any given moment. He’s not the most knowledgeable appropriations chairman the House has had, but he is fair. He just cherishes his prejudices too much to give them up.

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