The House meltdown and its consequences
Sun May 8, 2011 9:08 pm

Saturday was one of the wildest days I have seen in the House. The atmosphere was intensely partisan on both sides. Three major bills were up for debate–House Bill 400, which needs to pass in order to give school districts flexibility in dealing with school personnel; HB 12, the “emergency” sanctuary cities bill; and HB 274, the “Loser Pays” tort reform bill, also designated as an emergency by the governor. As I wrote about the sanctuary cities bill the other day, rank-and-file Republicans need for these bills to pass. They need to go home with an anti-immigration vote and a pro-tort reform vote. Angst was going to reign on the floor until these bills passed. The longer Democrats were able to delay action with points of order and other parliamentary maneuvers, the more the heat on the House floor neared the boiling point.

One of the things Republicans were worried about on Saturday was whether Democrats could break a quorum. One Republican member told me that 38 keys were missing from Democrats’ desks. I think it was poor judgment for Hunter to schedule a session for the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend. Members wanted to go home. A number of Republicans did leave, somewhere between 30 and 40. At one point, only 106 votes were cast on a motion. At that instant, Democrats could have walked and prevented Republicans from having a quorum. Sylvester Turner was the statesman here; he persuaded the remaining D’s that they had to stay.

Warren Chisum moved to put a call on the House: lock the doors and keep the members in. Turner objected. Why subject the Democrats to house arrest? They weren’t to blame for the absence of a quorum. Even if no Democrats were present, the Republicans had enough votes to pass anything they wanted to. If the Republicans couldn’t get their members to the floor for a vote, don’t blame the Democrats, Turner said. Chisum ultimately withdrew his motion.

The Republicans were on the verge of an explosion. Hunter moved to suspend all rules, and restart the action on Monday with the TWIA bill (Gallego has a point of order pending). Then he withdrew his motion. Subsequently, Straus said he would refuse to recognize any member for a point of order. This was amazing. It was worse than anything Craddick did, other than declare himself immune from removal as speaker.

There were a couple of ugly incidents along the way. Democrats raised a point of order about a witness form at a State Affairs hearing. Cook gave the gavel to Oliveira. The person who signed the form had not testified. Oliveira wrote that the witness was against the bill (sanctuary cities). Republicans were apoplectic. As they saw it, there was no point of order until Oliveira did what he did. “He put his own point of order on the bill,” one R told me.

The ultimate resolution was that Republicans moved the previous question–Kronberg called it the “nuclear option”–and passed Loser Pays to engrossment.

In the last few days, we have seen the presiding officers in both houses use the rules to get what they wanted. Dewhurst wired around the two-thirds rule to pass the budget on a majority vote. Straus did things that Craddick would have blushed to do. At one point he said he would not recognize members to raise points of order. [Clarification: This applied to the Loser Pays bill only.] That’s awful. He allowed a motion to shut off debate. He was ready to suspend all rules. That’s really awful. The rules are supposed to protect the members, not allow them to take shortcuts.  I still think he is a weak speaker, that he exercises no leadership, but merely enacts the will of the Republican caucus; he is Dennis Hastert, not Tom DeLay. The caucus collectively is running the House, not the speaker, but for a weak speaker, he’s pretty damn strong. The lesson here is not new: The majority is going to have its way.

* * * * *

Note to readers: Moments after posting this commentary, I came across Larry Taylor’s statement regarding the tumultuous House session on Saturday:

Republican members of the Texas House are supportive of open and honest debate.  We place tremendous value in good-faith policymaking discussions that are rooted in respect and truthfulness.  That is why I’m very disappointed by the actions on the part of some of my Democratic colleagues.  I personally reached out to them on numerous occasions today to work toward a consensus but unfortunately the Democrats refused all efforts toward a resolution.

It has become obvious over the past week that House Democrats are attempting tactics to stall, delay and prevent action on important legislative matters.  The “chubbing” stunt perpetrated by the Democratic Caucus last session killed many important legislative items and that fiasco is still fresh on our minds.

The arguments on the part of the Democratic house members about ‘respecting the House and respecting our rules’ have become shrill and extremely disingenuous.  Raising Points of Order after hours of debate reveal the tactics of the Democrats for exactly what they are – blatant attempts to stifle legislative debate and waste the valuable time of the Texas Legislature.  Simply put, we are done playing games.  We have parliamentary options to counter these tactics and the majority of the Texas House of Representatives will not sit idly by while the Democrats attempt to make a mockery of this session.

Texas voters spoke loud and clear last November by sending 101 Republicans to the Texas House of Representatives.  They gave the Texas Legislature a mandate for government reform, prudent fiscal discipline and respect for the rule of law.  We’ve been sent here by the voters to do a job, and we intend to do it.”

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