I contacted former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby get his reaction to last week’s Texas Senate debate and he shared the following memo, which he sent to Sen. Rodney Ellis. He readily acknowledges that he circumvented the two-thirds rule in the Killer Bees episode and calls it “the greatest mistake of my life.” But in the 1981 redistricting episode, he notes that the Senate could not have used the “special order” procedure to set the redistricting bill unless at least two-thirds of the Senate agreed. In that instance, the Senate was changing its rules – and thus was required to meet the two-thirds threshold.
Here are some excerpts:
“Dear Senator Ellis,
The two-thirds tradition is that the Senate sits as its own calendar committee, with the Lieutenant Governor as chair. As in other committees, the chair sets the agenda. The Senate decides.
Should this tradition be abandoned another method would have to be put in place. The new method would probably be a calendar committee similar to that in the House.
To get a bill out of committee a Senator must work the committee. To get a bill considered and passed by the Senate a Senator must work the Senate. Why interject another committee into the process?
Many of the examples cited in the memo are from special sessions, when the situation is different from that in regular sessions. The calendar is not crowded since bills are limited to subjects within the call.”
Hobby’s memo then lists the same bills referred to in the research memo Williams’ circulated among the Senate. But he notes that in 1981, the Senate needed a 2/3 vote to set a special order to debate the redistricting bills at a time certain. That’s because it involved a rules change:
“Setting a bill for Special Order requires 2/3 just like suspending the regular order. The Senate followed this procedure in both the regular and special session. Special orders for important bills are good ideas. Everybody knows when the bill is coming up.”
Of the “Killer Bees” episode, Hobby had this to say:
“My worst mistake. I was trying to get the primary bill to the top of the Senate Calendar. A bill at the top of the calendar IS the Regular Order of Business so you don’t have to suspend anything. In retrospect, it wasn’t a very good bill anyway. Bills that don’t have 2/3 rarely are. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.”
He also remembers another bill that the Senate journal showed was passed without a two-thirds vote: a resolution to hang Dolph Briscoe’s portrait. Hobby says: “I probably didn’t even refer it to committee. Nobody seemed to mind.”
Hobby’s memory – backed up by a transcript of the 1981 debate – highlights an important distinction between those events and the Senate action last week. In Hobby’s case (at least in the 1981 episode), he followed Senate rules and adhered to the 2/3 rule to set redistricting as a special order. Last week’s debate, of course, came as the Senate adopted its rules – and so no 2/3 rule applied when the Senate set Voter ID as a special order. Clever, that.