The rules debate: The way it's supposed to be
Fri January 30, 2009 6:38 pm

It was an amazing thing to be in the House for Wednesday's rules debate. It was as if someone had taken a giant vaccuum cleaner and sucked all the tension out of the air. The House went about the business of adopting its rules without dramatics. Speakers come and speakers go, but the glacial pace of the House of Representatives is ever thus. Members huddled at the speaker's desk, as they always do; large chunks of time passed without any action while amendments were drafted; and Democrats who hadn't been at the front microphone for years reacquainted themselves with the territory. The normality of it was extraordinary.

THE FIRST BATTLE

The insurgent forces who now control the House found themselves on the defensive during the very first issue that arose, which was an inside-baseball battle over which committees would have jurisdiction over electricity and telecommunications. The principal protagonists were Sylvester Turner and Burt Solomons. It was a heated debate, during which Turner accused Solomons of going back on his word. Turner and Phil King wanted all of the jurisdiction of King's now-defunct Regulated Industries committee to go to State Affairs. Solomons' proposed language for State Affairs' jurisdiction did not specify that; it merely said that State Affairs would be responsible for oversight of the Public Utility Commission and the Office of Public Utility Counsel.

Watching from the gallery, I wondered what the stakes were that caused tempers to flare. Turner has reason to be on edge. Last session he was speaker pro tem and leader of the Craddick D's; now he's a man without a country, wondering if the Democratic leadership will attempt to exact revenge on the Craddick D's in the committee assignments process. He was on State Affairs in the years before Craddick gutted the committee, and he was heavily involved in electricity issues. Turner argued, with considerable logic, that the complicated issues involving electricity and telecommunications should be handled by a single committee, namely, State Affairs. Turner has the seniority to claim a seat on the committee, if he wants one, which he apparently does. (Appropriations is another possibility.) Solomons also has a history of playing in utility issues. As chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, he tangled repeatedly with Phil King. Solomons is widely presumed to be ticketed for the chairmanship of the Business and Industry committee, and his arguments for giving the speaker flexibility in referring bills to committees suggested to me that he wants a piece of the action. I hasten to add that I am confident that both Turner and Solomons were primarily motivated by substantive rather than personal considerations, as one would expect in this new era of good feeling. Yeah, sure.

Turner offered an amendment to "clar-i-fy" (he enunciated the word very s-l-o-w-l-y) State Affairs' jurisdiction. Solomons moved to table. The motion to table failed by a vote of 65-82. Instantly, Solomons accepted the amendment. I looked at the record vote and could discern no pattern. Rs and Ds voted for and against the motion to table. Dunnam and Craddick were on the same side. So were Charlie Howard and Donna Howard. A sewing class couldn't find a pattern in this vote. This would not be the case in the two skirmishes that followed.

THE RESISTANCE MAKES ITS MOVE

The new resistance movement in the House, the conservative Republicans, rolled out the heavy artillery against Solomons' proposed language on questions of privilege--which, of course, was designed to undo the Terry Keel ruling that the speaker may refuse to recognize any member, and that he was an officer of the state who can only be removed from office by impeachment (or expulsion), both of which require a two-thirds vote. Phil King, Larry Taylor, and Larry Phillips took issue with Solomons' proposal to establish a procedure for removing the speaker: a motion signed by 76 members and presented to the speaker appealing his refusal to recognize a member on a question of privilege. The speaker had twenty-four hours in which to recognize the member. If he failed to do so, the members could uphold the appeal by majority vote and proceed with execution--er, removal--of the speaker.

King's amendment required a 2/3 vote to remove the speaker. Taylor followed with an amendment to King's amendment calling for a 3/5 vote (90 members). Merritt argued that anything above a majority made it all but impossible to remove the speaker. I would simply add this: Any speaker who can't turn 2 of 76 members in 24 hours doesn't deserve to be speaker. The vote was on the Taylor amendment to the amendment. Solomons moved to table, and the motion prevailed by a vote of 87-60. The margin was interesting, and ironic, because it is reminiscent of the division of the House when Tom Craddick became speaker: 88 Republicans, 62 Democrats.

On this vote, a party-line pattern did emerge: 56 Republicans voted with Taylor to require 90 votes to remove the speaker. Only three Democrats--Edwards, Guillen, and Pena--joined them. All are former Craddick Ds. Eighteen Republicans voted with the Democrats to oppose the higher threshold: Button, Cook, Elkins, Geren, Hilderbran, Hughes, Jones, Keffer, Kuempel, McCall, Merritt, D. Miller, Paxton, Phillips, Pitts, T. Smith, and Smithee. Seven of the ABCs voted against Solomon's motion to table. I cannot account for this except that, having worked hard to unseat Craddick and elect a new speaker, they wanted to make it more difficult to remove him. Nor can I account for Phillips' vote, since he argued vigorously on the side of King and Taylor.

The battle over recognition for matters of privilege was the beginning and the end of the resistance, at least on this day. The starch pretty much went out of King, who appears to be the leader of the conservative forces, and his followers after that, except for:

THE DUNNAM AMENDMENT SKIRMISH

Dunnam moved, with no explanation, to include in the responsibilities of the State Affairs committee, "all matters related to federal economic stimulus legislation, including, without limitation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009." Solomons appeared to be taken by surprise by the lack of information and moved to table the amendment. The motion to table prevailed by a 73-71 vote, and there was this moment of confusion when no one knew whether to ask for a verification or not. The vote was almost party-line all the way. Almost. Five Democrats voted with the Rs to table (Farabee, Guillen, T. King, Pickett, and Quintanilla). Five Republicans voted with the Ds: fellow Wacoan Doc Anderson, McCall, Merritt, T. Smith, and -- you'll never guess -- Craddick!!!

Subsequently, Solomons moved to reconsider the vote by which the amendment was tabled, after Dunnam provided an explanation. The federal stimulus money must be accepted by the state. It can be accepted by the governor or by a designated entity. Dunnam was concerned that Perry, having tried to score political points by calling his Republican primary rival Kay "Bailout" Hutchison, might refuse the stimulus money, and he wanted an alternative. On reconsideration, the amendment was amended to redirect the money from State Affairs to Appropriations, without controversy. But the incident served as a reminder that Dunnam still may have traces of radioactivity from his floor leadership of the insurgency over the past three sessions. I don't want to end the discussion without acknowledging Craddick's vote for the amendment.

CHARTER MEMBER OF THE ONE HUNDRED CLUB FOR THE 81ST LEGISLATURE

Harold Dutton. He moved to reconsider a Jerry Madden amendment that, as I read it, returned Texas Youth Commission issues to the Corrections committee, which Madden chaired last sessions, and, along with other shuffling of jurisdictions, eliminated Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, which Dutton had chaired last session. Can't blame a man for trying, but the result was 121 votes against the motion to reconsider.

Solomons was on the floor for around six hours. Except for the flap between himself and Turner, no harsh words were exchanged, and no hard feelings were in evidence. He let the members do what they wanted to do, and the end product clears up a lot of the residual problems created by the rulings at the end of last session. All in all, a good start to returning the expectations and behavior of the House to what it is supposed to be.

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