The House Is Not A Home
In which our hero, an intrepid freshman, manages to survive 140 days of lobbyists, parties, wheeling, dealing, Christians, Lions, whites, blacks, reds, greens, and other hazards of the Texas Legislature.
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Update, May 22, 2013: “A lot has changed” in the Texas House in the 18 sessions since former state representative Chase Untermeyer penned a colorful journal of his first term in office for Texas Monthly in 1977. “Despite its meager reputation, the Legislature is a much more serious body than it used to be. And there are few, if any, characters of the sort that I tried to illustrate, some of the people who are good at wisecracks or had sort of eccentric personalities,” Untermeyer said. “That, for better or for worse, has changed.”
Still, those familiar with the pink dome find that Untermeyer’s words still resonate. “I keep hearing, pretty much every other year, that there are people on legislative staffs who somehow have been given or found a copy of that article and read it and tell me about it, which is a great compliment,” Untermeyer said.
Untermeyer said the lessons he learned during his two terms in the Texas House applied to his future pursuits, as a senior staffer for President George H.W. Bush and, later, as the ambassador to Qatar. He is now an international business consultant in Houston.
“Having been a local vote getter, a person who rang doorbells and stood in front of polls passing out my card, put me in direct touch with citizens in a way that a lot of people that I came in contact with at those senior levels of American government never saw. They had much more gilded resumes—they may have worked for a Wall Street law firms or they’d been involved in great financial houses and they may have gone to graduate school and gotten many degrees—but they had never really met the people—the voters—the way I had,” Untermeyer said.
November 3, 1976, 10 a.m.: A knock at the door. Still groggy from last night’s bittersweet election partying, I open it to find a messenger from the University of Houston with an invitation from the president of the Board of Regents to a dinner honoring the Speaker of the House, Bill Clayton, tonight. The invitation is addressed to the Honorable Me. What a difference a day makes: only a few hours ago I was a Republican candidate for the Legislature in a white-socks and silk-stocking district on Houston’s west side, and this morning I’m honorable. In the expansive good mood I have on this day of general GOP gloom, the state representative-elect from District 83 accepts with pleasure. So the lobbying starts this early. In the next several days I am also to receive a bronze paperweight bearing the Texas A&M seal and an application for free tickets to the remaining games in the University of Texas football season.
November 22: Today begins “freshman orientation” for the 38 newly elected members of the House at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. In the shuffle from conference hall to seminar room to reception, I am pleased and somewhat relieved to find that the old stereotype of a state legislator—a boozing hayseed out to have a good ole boy’s good ole time in Austin—is nowhere in sight. Observers already are remarking how serious, dedicated, and knowledgeable we freshmen seem to be. Perhaps serving in the Texas Legislature won’t spread too bad a stain on the family reputation after all.
December 19: Back from a three-week trip to the East Coast, I find three paper sacks full of Christmas mail. There are warm and personal messages from university presidents whom I’ve never met and others from people I’ve never heard of at all. Later, in Austin, I learn they’re lobbyists. In addition, there are cards from organizations that anxiously await another time of Santa Clausery once the Legislature convenes. “When we count our blessings at Christmastime,” one reads, “we think of friends like you!” It was signed the Pasadena Police Officers Association. Another card says on the cover, “To faithful old friends, to cherished new friends, and to those whose friendship we hope to earn . . .” Flipping it open, I find it’s from the Texas Public Employees Association.
January 10, 1977: My last full day as a civilian. I walk from my room at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel and for the first time see my small but serviceable Capitol office. Surrounded by staff asking questions, visited by colleagues, lobbyists, and assorted other well-wishers, I have a premonition that for the next 140 days I shall never be completely alone.
January 11: The normally somnolent “Stephen F” has come alive overnight and is filled with old-timers greeting acquaintances from past legislative sessions.
“Why, looky here! Who you lobbyin’ for this session?”
“Boy, they sure are smart to hire you!”
“Well, I figger they didn’t get where they are by bein’ dumb.”
I am introduced to Tom Uher of Bay City. As chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, Tom plays the role of monster man during the session, sitting on bills that members (especially the Speaker) never want to see again.
“Another U!” he exclaims, pumping my hand. “Ain’t never been another U the whole time I been up here!” We agree on the spot to form the exclusive U Political Caucus.
The caucus never gets very far, but it is much more of a reality than a larger and presumably more political association with which I am affiliated, namely the Republican party. There are eighteen Republicans in the Texas House of 1977, up two from the previous session and the biggest GOP contingent since Reconstruction. But in the entirety of the 65th session we are never to have a leader or even to caucus, save for an informal and poorly attended weekly gathering at state headquarters.
Bob Davis of Irving grabs me off the street and sweeps me back inside the hotel to have breakfast. Bob is probably the shrewdest Republican in the House, acclaimed for his knowledge of its rules. He is also one of the most valued members of Democratic Speaker Clayton’s “team”; by week’s end he will be named chairman of the Insurance Committee.
Stabbing at a sausage, the fast-talking Davis explains why there is no Republican organization in the House. “The name of the game around here is who has the authority to compel attention, and we ain’t got it. Maybe when we have about thirty members we will. But till then if we try to line up as Republicans, all we’d do is have the Democrats line up against us.”
Noontime comes and with it the ceremonial swearing in of a new House of Representatives. I proceed to the House floor, which is filled with legislators and their families. This gives the House the ambience of a third-class railway coach in India—better dressed, of course, but roiling and moiling just the same. Children are crawling, screaming, poking; old people trying to look suitably composed for the occasion; and lawmakers scrounging for extra seats.
After the oath-taking and the unopposed reelection of Speaker Clayton, the House recesses for lunch. We send our families and supporters back home and return to debate the rules by which the House will govern itself. The afternoon gives birth to the best mixed metaphor of the entire session. A senior member, arguing against a rule change, protests that the proposal is “a horse of a different color that opens up a whole new can of worms.”
January 13: Committee assignments for the session are announced to a House wreathed in total and atypical silence. All day there was an air of Christmas Eve expectancy among the members. Now the reading clerk, unchallenged for attention, reveals what the workaday fate of 150 legislators will be.
I am assigned to both committees I requested: Intergovernmental Affairs and Health & Welfare. The latter is chaired by John Wilson, of La Grange, star of the 1975 session and a sly and capable country boy with a reputation as a populist. A few days after the committee lists are unveiled, I request an appointment with Wilson to get to know him better.
John tells me he had his choice of four committee chairmanships and chose Health & Welfare because “we’re not exactly on the main line of fire like other committees are.”
“What do you mean by that,” I ask.
“Well, take energy resources, for example. There ain’t nothin’ comin’ out of that committee that the oil and gas industry doesn’t want and that the Speaker doesn’t want. At least on Health & Welfare you members can hear all the testimony and come up with a pretty objective idea of what kind of bills should be passed.”
January 17: The Texas Association of Realtors throws a mass reception for legislators, and half of Austin shows up. The popular image of a legislative session is that lawmakers spend most hours rolling from one lavish reception to another, never once having to pay for their food and drink. After tonight’s affair and a couple of others, I conclude that the typical legislative reception is a lousy place to eat, drink, or even try to talk.
A legislator invariably is accosted by someone (a lobbyist or a colleague) between the nametag table and his destination—the bar or the food—and forced to stave off pangs of hunger and thirst till a break can be made. By then, legislative staffers—the only Capitol habitués who really depend on receptions for sustenance—have done extensive damage to the shrimp or guacamole. Standard Capitol wisdom says that receptions are political musts, the place to work on getting a bill out of subcommittee or to campaign for votes for Speaker. Maybe. But they’re certainly not agreeable places (in a colleague’s inspired expression) “to graze.”
January 19: I seek general-purpose advice from Fred Agnich, of Dallas, the Daddy Warbucks of House Republicans. Fred was a director at Texas Instruments and doesn’t have to worry about making do on his legislative pay of $600 a month.
“If you don’t know what’s in a bill,” he counsels, “always vote no. You can usually justify a no vote on any bill, but it’s not always easy to justify a yes vote. Hell, we’ve got too much damn legislation anyway.”
January 24: In today’s mail I receive a letter from Colonel Wilson E. Speir, director of the DPS (Department of Public Safety). Saluting me as “ My dear friend” (I’ve not yet met the gentleman), Colonel Speir writes, “For many years it has been traditional for the DPS to provide an identification card to members of the Legislature. I am attaching your card for the current session and hope you will find it of value.”
The blue card is laminated and gives nothing more than my name and title. I have long heard about these get-out-jail-free cards but am curious to find out just what use Colonel Speir hoped I would find for it. On a whim I pick up the phone and dial the DPS. Neither Speir nor his first assistant is in, but the public relations man is.
He greets me with the relentless cheer typical of his breed, which, however, begins to disappear when I inquire what circumstances require a legislator to present an ID card.
“Ah, there’s no reason except . . . some very remote situation when . . . some emergency might arise and . . . well, some people find them handy.” When pressed, he weakens steadily. “In the old days, a senator or representative might be in a hurry—on official business, of course—and he might be stopped by a policeman and then . . . he’d just show his card and be on his way.”
Later the House convenes for routine business. There are long pauses between the conduct of affairs from the dais, and I make a habit of bringing something to the floor to do during these lapses: constituent mail, the clipping service of state news provided free to legislators, or one of the many thick state agency reports. Looking up from my busywork at the several clusters of my colleagues talking animatedly, I wonder if I’m missing out by not getting up to mill around with them. Are they making deals on bills, exchanging juicy information that I should know, or just passing the time in pleasant blather? Somehow they seem as if they’re doing their job and I’m not.
January 25: With a minimum of trouble, I arrange for a courtesy call on the governor. Howard Richards, the governor’s legislative liaison, escorts me into the private office, cluttered with western bric-a-brac and paintings. Dolph Briscoe enters from the side and we shake hands. Briscoe reminisces about the 1972 gubernatorial campaign, which I covered as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and, with a warm smile, asks whether I like the Legislature. This permits me to drop a chestnut I’ve been using all week.
“Well, Governor, serving in the Legislature is a little like sex: if you admit you like it too much, you’re supposed to feel guilty.
Dolph’s grin grows wordlessly wider. Howard sinks deeper in his chair. I realize that perhaps this was the first time in four years that that word had been heard in those parts. The call soon ends.
February 8: The House debates the first major bill of the session, one to divert $528 million in new funds into highways. Ever since the last session, the state highway department and the powerful “highway lobby” (construction companies, engineering firms, suppliers, and the like) have staged a mammoth public relations campaign about a “funding crisis” for the department. True, the department is far behind in fulfilling its commitments, but a lot of the backlog is due to the New York City–style overcommitment by the three-member highway commission to every rural county commissioners’ court that asks for a new road.
Some extra money for highways is justified, but the lobby is taking no chances on the Legislature’s goodwill. They want HB 3 (the highway bill) passed intact and immediately, long before the general state appropriations bill forces the House to decide its priorities for the state budget. I join a group of liberals and some Republicans in demanding HB 3 be postponed until the appropriations bill has been considered by the Legislature. The bill’s proponents want purity and they get it: the motion to postpone is tabled, 85-55. My vote becomes the one of which I am proudest all session, and before long the rammed-through highway bill becomes a constant oratorical reminder to all members of how we were bamboozled into voting first for concrete and then having to divide the remains among other needs such as teachers and mentally retarded kids.
February 12: Back home for the weekend, I attend the festivities of Involvement Day in Houston, sponsored by the Cousteau Society. It’s a chance to look at some fascinating exhibits and, not coincidentally, to say hello to environmentalist friends. One of these greets me and says, “What’s happening in the Legislature? You’re pushing things through very early, like the highway bill.” In the middle of my reply I suddenly notice that I am defending the honor of the House, explaining the bill in terms its supporters would approve—rather like a member of one of those old and decaying Southern families who quarrel among themselves but close ranks against the world.
February 16: The House takes up HB 22, which would permit farm and ranch land to be taxed on its productive value (rather than market) value. The bill means a lot to rural legislators who have seen farmers and ranchers forced to sell out to developers because their property taxes got too high. It’s also a bill I favor, believing that urban areas also benefit from greenbelts on their fringes, land that provides natural flood protection and a nearby source of food and fiber. Other urban legislators see the issue differently, contending that if rural residents get a break, they’ll simultaneously get a larger share of the state’s school funds under the present funding formula. When the vote on HB 22 looks close, I take the floor in my maiden speech: “Mr. Speaker, members,” I begin, in the standard opener to all speeches in the House.
The House, which is difficult to grasp as an entity when seated on the floor, becomes almost surreal from the front mike. Some members are listening, others not. Suddenly there’s a burst of laughter from a group of members huddling on something totally divorced from HB 22. Beyond the brass rail that corrals lawmakers, there is a continual motion of pages, press, staffers, and members. Legislators still seated at their desks hear me in an after-lunch attitude of bored courtesy.
“This piece of legislation has been characterized as an urban-versus-rural fight,” I continue. “I rise in support of this bill even though I am definitely a city boy. In fact, the largest agricultural operation in my district is probably maintaining the golf course at the River Oaks Country Club.”
After a few appreciative yoks, I sketch the reasons for my support and sit down. The bill passes easily—indeed, too easily for my speech to have made any difference. For the rest of the day I feel awful, remembering things I could have said. By the end of the session, I learn not to take too seriously either my own words or others’ reaction to them—but also not to take the act of addressing the House so lightly that I am constantly “on the mike.” Some members can kill a bill just by speaking in favor of it, so tiresome are their frequent trips to the podium.
February 21, 11 p.m.: Mickey Leland drops by my office, where I’m taking advantage of the quiet hours to read day-old newspapers and mail. Despite our marked philosophical and personal differences—he, a free-spirited black liberal Democrat, and I, a buttoned-down white conservative Republican—we have been friends since an unlikely dockside meeting during the 1972 governor’s race.
Knowing my interest in mental health, Mickey asks whether I can support a proposed $14 million appropriation for a hospital for the Houston-based TRIMS (Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences), a division of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, which currently rents hospital space. I reply that the mental health community in Houston fears that a TRIMS hospital might prevent other state funds from being allocated for badly needed community services. Moreover, the elite research-oriented TRIMS has always acted as if it had no special obligation to the people of Houston. If a rider could be attached to the hospital appropriation that in some way directly committed TRIMS to helping the mental health problems of Harris County, I muse, the local Mental Health Association and county officials could back the project and help quell opposition from Houston legislators.
Mickey says that whatever I want to put in the rider he’ll tack onto the TRIMS hospital appropriation. It’s a deal.
February 22: Using the telephone at my desk on the House floor, I call John Trimble, board chairman of the Harris County MHMR, whose wife is active in the Mental Health Association. I mention the Leland offer and leave it up to John to propose the one thing the Houston area most desperately needs in mental health services. John later calls me back with the answer: about 25 to 50 beds for emotionally disturbed children, there being no such public facility in the county.
February 23: I catch Mickey on the floor and tell him of my talk with Trimble. He says beds for children is a great idea. This evening, a Health and Welfare subcommittee will hear testimony from Dr. Joseph Schoolar, the director of TRIMS. Mickey whispers to me as I enter the hearing room, “Everybody’s for what you want.” Schooler and I confer before he takes the stand, and we agree on a few items that we later repeat on the record in minstrel-show fashion. If this is how multimillion-dollar budget decisions are made, it almost seems too easy.
February 25: By virtue of my high office, I have been invited to ride in the annual Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo parade, precipitating what my staff and I call the Horse Crisis. The invitation said I could ride my horse, their horse, or a pickup truck. I decide to concede my lack of horse and horsemanship by riding in the pickup. This proves the wisest political choice, for the rodeo folks make up big signs bearing the politician’s name to tape to the side of the truck—something they don’t put on the horses.
I show my east Harris County colleague, Henry Allee, something Bill Buckley pointed out in a spy spoof he recently wrote: English royalty always wave as if they’re reaching up to unscrew a light bulb. Henry and I ride off in the to sunrise, unscrewing light bulbs all the way down Main Street.
March 7: The Health & Welfare Committee hears hours of testimony on a bill to permit pharmacists to substitute generic drugs without a physician’s approval. To me, it’s a “bad ole bill,” poorly drafted and more rhetoric than remedy. There’s only one catch to my deciding flatly on a no vote. The bill’s author is Mickey Leland, and it’s something he has been trying for three sessions to pass. IF I vote against him, will he pull the plug on our agreement to put the children’s services rider on the TRIMS appropriation?
As the vote nears, I lean toward Mickey and ask, “Do you have the votes to get this bill out of committee? He nods; I vote no.
Afterwards, I ask Mickey if my opposition to his pet bill means trouble for the TRIMS rider. Still jubilant at the favorable committee vote, he claps me on the shoulder, “No, man. I’m still cool on that. We made a deal.”
Drug company lobbyists rush forward to thank me for my vote as scowling pharmacy students file past. Because of my committee assignments, I tend to get a lot of lobby contact from groups interested in all phases of health care in addition to visits from policemen, firefighters, and miscellaneous “cause” crazies. Other than that, I’m astounded at how little I’m contacted by the infamous Big Boys of Austin lobbydom. After learning of my absolute dedication to county home rule, the Realtors have stopped calling. Never am I to meet the major oil company lobbyists, and the railroads visit me only because they’re fully mobilized for the crucial debate over construction of coal slurry pipeline.
Seldom am I asked out to a meal, and as for lobby gifts, reality once more fails to live up to legend. No one offers me a weekend in Acapulco or a night with Jacqueline Bisset. New laws limit gifts to items worth less than $10, but if the booty is less than impressive, the quantity is imposing: a Texas Motor Transportation Association plaque; two movie passes from theater owners; letter openers from the Spring Branch Education Association and the Texas Municipal Police Association; a two-pound sack of Spanish peanuts from peanut growers; two rose bushes; a half-dozen grapefruit; a fishing lure; a box of Mexican food products; a metric converter; two heavy brass belt buckles; a jar of honey; an orange Houston Astros baseball cap; a cube of rock salt; a Pierre Cardin necktie with a Texas map design divided into six regions, which few members realize represent the Southwestern Bell area codes; and a flyswatter, inscribed “good for use on flies, lobbyists, newsmen, and other pests.”
March 24: Local & Consent Calendar Day. Facing us is a long list of bills that are theoretically “uncontested”—although several are at least as important as others we’ve debated for hours on the regular calendar. The impetus is to move the bills through all the necessary motions—fast—with members lining up to give only one-sentence “explanations” of each measure.
Clayton is a master at the auctioneer’s patter required for this show, and he has developed a rhythmical slapping of the gavel that almost demands that the pace not be broken. Once today when a colleague was a little slow in coming to the front mike, the Speaker barked unhappily, “C’mon, members. Let’s keep rollin’!”
As well as I can make them out, these are the magic words that the Speaker intones to move bills on “L&C” to third reading and final passage:
“Clerkill readabill!” (The clerk starts to read the bill’s title but is interrupted a split-second later by the smack of the gavel.) “Izzair jection? Passterd reading!”
March 31: The House finishes a brutal three-day debate over the county ordinance-making authority bill, approving a much-amended version by twelve votes and sending the ragged creature off to die on the table of a Senate committee. Next I focus on a bill coming up in the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee to permit pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. My district is split on the issue between the Baptists of Spring Branch and the polo players of River Oaks. I oppose the bill as a bad business deal for the state, something my horsier constituents say isn’t correct.
I get a call from a horse breeder who says: “You have no idea, son, what this could mean for Texas. I had to send my prize mare up to Kentucky to be bred with a famous stud up there. It cost me ten thousand dollars, and do you know that they charged a five percent state sales tax on top of that?”
A dangerous precedent, I reply. A tax on sex. You never know where something like that may lead.
April 12: The biggest, longest day, and hardest day of the session yet. At 9:30 a.m. the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee hold its public hearing on the horse-racing bill. The crowd of stylish-looking people (all wearing the uniform of the day—white cowboy hats) packs the House floor and gallery. “I sure am glad I’m a member of this committee,” I lie to a colleague. “Otherwise I couldn’t get a seat.”
When we adjourn four hours later, we barely have enough time to gulp down a snack before the full House meets. There we spend almost six hours debating another Leland bill, which would make a state park out of a high-priced junkyard in the Fifth Ward ghetto northeast of downtown Houston. When that is voted down, we take up the indescribably complicated school finance bill.
An hour after we adjourn at 7:30 p.m., Health and Welfare convenes to hear testimony on two of the session’s most controversial bills: one sought by Fundamentalist churches to exempt church-owned child-care facilities from state Welfare Department inspections; the other to restrict abortions. The committee meets in the House chamber, and for the second time today the place is packed. The church bill gets out of committee by one vote, but the abortion bill’s sponsor, after more hours of testimony, does not ask for a vote on his measure because exhaustion has robbed him of some of the members he needs for a majority. We finally quit at 1 a.m., ending a seventeen-hour workday. Is this the Texas Legislature I’ve always heard about, a place of unrelieved gaiety and partying?
April 13: Tonight it’s the Equal Rights Amendment that has filled the House chamber and kept committee members in their seats for hours. Not on that particular panel, I am free this evening to do officework till midnight. When finished, I drop by the House to see if anything’s still going on. The place is empty except for a mustachioed man in his late thirties with a little girl at his side. Unaware that a legislator is anywhere close, the man grimly tells his daughter, “People here get paid money to cheat.”
“They do?” the girl asks incredulously.
“Yes, lie and cheat. It makes me sick. Let’s go home.”
April 26: Just like in the Army, the troops are grumbling at the generals. The Appropriations Committee got out of control and became the scene of such widespread logrolling that the resulting budget bill is a numbing $400 million over the recommendations of the respected Legislative Budget Board. The House leadership now swears off any connection with it, which means the bill must be “written on the floor,” a term of disgust that legislators apply to any measure that has been poorly handled by its parent committee. It also means that individual lawmakers will have to defend their special projects in the bill rather than simply rely on the leadership to push the whole package of pork.
One of these projects is the TRIMS hospital. Mickey was able to get it through the Appropriations Committee, my rider attached, by only one vote. With a $14 million price tag, it becomes a prime target for budget trimming.
Jimmie Edwards of Conroe offers an amendment to strike the TRIMS facility altogether. In a rare show of liberal–conservative Houston harmony, Mickey and I team up to defend the hospital. Deliberately skirting the question of whether the hospital is truly needed, I emphasize what the rider would do for the “children of Texas.” Mickey moves to table the Edwards amendment, and the voting board lights up gratifyingly green. We triumph, 87-56.
April 27: The TRIMS hospital victory proves short-lived. Milton Fox, a fellow Harris County Republican who sits on Appropriations and was more appalled than anyone at the trade-offs that occurred there, is especially peeved about the TRIMS project. He offers another amendment designed to kill it. Still angry with the Appropriations Committee, the House is in a cuttin’ mood. The Fox amendment passes, 77-69. Over in the Senate, the TRIMS hospital never survives the Finance Committee. When the two houses meet to hammer out the final budget bill, the hospital, children’s beds and all, is set aside for two more years.
The budget battle lurches on. As the House debates increasing state welfare payments, Representative Chris Miller of Fort Worth takes the front mike to read a letter of support from the Baptist General Convention. Trying to get the House’s attention, Chris says, “This is something that will be of interest to all you Christians—and to you Jews too, Mr. Ribak.” (Abe Ribak, of San Antonio, the House’s only Jewish member.) A gruff laugh comes from Redneck Hollow—a section of the House floor heavy with a concentration of conservatives that corresponds to the liberals’ Red Square. “Well, that may be what the Christians want,” a member says, “but the Lions want something else!”
The Lions win today. Cuts are made in most everything that anyone is courageous enough to propose chopping. An exception is funding for the arts, retained at the Appropriations Committee’s figure, itself twice as high as the Commission on the Arts and Humanities requested. With the TRIMS fight now over, I become a hidebound Lion and vote for every cut, including the arts.
May 4: The appropriations bill is now in its seventh excruciating day of floor debate. As a blessed bit of relief, the Speaker recesses the House in the early evening so members can make a couple of social engagements tonight. Among them is the Texas Arts Showcase, a revue by various Texas performers of everything from mariachi music and Chopin études to country and western singing. During intermission, Milton Fox notes something interesting. The legislators who are here tonight are mostly Lions who voted to slash funding for the arts along with everything else. Where are the vaunted heroes of that fight, the cultural Christians? They’re at the other event happening tonight, the boilermakers union shrimp shuck.
May 9: Three weeks until final adjournment. Attendance this morning is spotty. But the vote board is called by the Speaker, thanks to the time-worn legislative custom of punching thy neighbor’s button. Specifically against House rules, the practice is nevertheless so common in breaks into print only on dull days when the press has nothing else to report.
This morning, with bodies scarce on the floor, button pushing is the only thing that can get a theoretical quorum and start business. A hulking rural legislator with an eight-foot wingspan races down the aisle and simultaneously pushes the buttons of missing members on either side. A neighbor is impressed. “Boy, you workin’ like an octopus on a motorcycle today.”
May 13, Friday the 13th: Appropriately enough, today the resounding rhythm of the Speaker’s gavel continues past the bills on the Local & Consent Calendar and gives the same rush-’em-through treatment to bills on the regular agenda. We will pass 134 bills today. Ed Watson, a scrappy union official from Deer Park who always wears a big gold Democratic donkey pin lapel, takes the back mike to interrupt the eardrum-splitting crack of the gavel. “Mr. Speaker,” Ed inquires. “Is this ole train gonna slow down for crossings or is it just gonna whistle?”
I vote no wherever I have the slightest doubt about a bill, especially banking bills, remembering both Sharpstown and Fred Agnich’s advice. But who knows? Maybe it will be a hospital district bill or something connected with utilities aboard that ole train which causes the next great Texas political scandal.
May 19: As the days dwindle down, tempers grow shorter as the sessions grow longer. A phrase heard more often nowadays is “mislead this House.” When a member tells another in debate, “I think you’re misleading this House,” he means his colleague is lying. When a member at the front mike says, “I don’t want to mislead this House,” he is imploring, “Please believe me.”
May 23: One week to go, and things are getting meaner. Today brings another Local & Consent Calendar, chock-full of major items that shouldn’t be there. Among these are election-law changes that Republicans and liberal Democrats, from years of sad experience, know are written by and for the dominant conservative wing of the Democratic party. We Republicans summon enough signatures on a “knock-off slip” to bump one election bill off L&C and onto the regular House calendar, meaning certain death at this stage of the session. The Democrats retaliate by killing a Republican-backed elections bill. But knockers are nowhere to be found for a bill deliberately aimed at circumventing the Houston City Charter to permit members of the city council to raise their own salaries without a vote of the people.
Next session, I vow, I’m going to be more of a sumbitch. But to do so I must face the danger of not passing anything of my own. If a legislator has a program, 149 other members of the House hold his bill hostage. It’s a risk few take.
May 24: Every bill is beginning to sound like the one before, “just a simple change from somethin’ we did last session.” I find myself agreeing with words sputtered today by the old bulldog of the House, Bill Heatly of Paducah. Once feared when he reigned unrivaled over the Appropriations Committee but now largely an amusing relic of the Bad Old Days, Heatly advises a freshman against a proposed constitutional amendment. “Why?” the member asks.
“I jes’ don’t think we should change a thing. We getting’ on all right.”
From the front mike comes the carefully homespun oratory of Ben Grant of Marshall: “We need a law with teeth in it, and I don’t mean teeth that smile at improprieties. I mean teeth that bite and chew and gnaw at wrongdoers.”
May 28: Fifty-six and one-half hours till sine die. This term, meaning the absolute constitutional end of the 140-day session, is not pronounced in any way recognizable either by Cicero or Father O’Flaherty from the parish church around the corner. Rather, in these parts, it rhymes with “briny fly.”
After weeks of rushing bills through, the House now seems in suspended animation, just as at the beginning of the session. From time to time we vote on a conference committee report or listen to a resolution commending two sergeants at arms for becoming engaged.
I wander over to the Senate to check the action, not having spent much time on the other side of the rotunda all session. After close observation this afternoon, I conclude that the only thing that makes the place more, well, senatorial, is not its smaller and self-consciously more distinguished-looking membership but the fact that it has a somber green carpet and the House has one of happy-face yellow. Tom Creighton of Mineral Wells notices me and turns around to introduce himself. “You people over in the House have been sendin’ us trash, just trash,” Creighton says. “And you know what? We been passin’ it.”
May 30: The longest and last day begins with doubt as to whether it truly will be our final day. House and Senate conferees are still short of compromises on the medical malpractice and school finance bills. Especially if there is no agreement on schools, the governor will almost have to call a special session, ordinarily anathema to him.
The House today mostly waits for words from the conference committees. Members take the opportunity to introduce visiting constituents in the gallery. The champeen introducer, though, is Joe Allen of Baytown. Irritated at the silly subterfuge whereby members must inquire of the Speaker “whether it is against the rules” to introduce so-and-so, Allen gains fame by “recognizing” such absolutely absent celebrities as Anita Bryant, Nelson Rockefeller, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
After a long late-afternoon recess, we reassemble to wait some more. The medical malpractice conferees report that peace has been reached with the Senate, and a bill that appeared doomed quickly becomes law. At 10:30 the Speaker announces that an agreement on an $896 million school finance bill has been reached but that the bill has not been “printed,” a legislative euphemism for cutting, pasting, and photocopying pieces of various bill drafts. Clayton promises we won’t be asked to vote on anything not physically before us.
At 11:30—only half an hour before adjournment sine die—Jim Kaster of El Paso takes the front mike to present the compromise school bill. Members still don’t have a copy of it, only a sheet purporting to contain the highlights. Of course, with so complicated a subject and so few remaining minutes, having the full 83-page bill in front of us wouldn’t necessarily mean anything. Even to take up the bill requires a suspension of the House rule mandating that a measure be in members’ hands at least two hours before it is “laid out” for consideration. Kaster moves to suspend this rule, which will take a two-thirds vote, or 100 members pushing the aye button. John Bryant of Dallas, the unofficial liberal leader of the House, warns that “a special session wouldn’t be nearly as costly as what this bill would cost us.”
It’s one of those occasions in politics when liberal conscience and conservative caution merge into the same conclusion. Along with deskmate Lee Jackson, a Dallas Republican and one of the very few House members who understands the thorny school finance problem, I conclude that it would be the height of irresponsibility to vote on an education bill costing almost $1 billion that no one has even seen in one piece.
In his racetrack announcer’s accelerating voice, Clayton states the question before the House. Members, leaning forward like thoroughbreds, fingers already on the voting machine button of their choice, feel a rush of emotion and adrenaline as the board instantly become a Christmas canvas of red and green. From the hefty-looking number of red lights nestled among the green, we whoa-sayers know immediately we’ve won. The galleries and floor explode with whoops of triumph and cries of outrage. The Speaker gavels the entire chamber to silence, warning that the galleries will be cleared if order is not maintained. Then, with a laconic tone that seems divorced from the electricity of the moment, Clayton announces, “There being ninety-two ayes, fifty-five noes, the rule fails to s’pend.”
A special session now a certainty, Clayton gavels the regular session to a close, and the tired members break up to shake hands (“Sure has been great workin’ with ya!”) and to find out where the office parties are. Outside, a delegation from the Houston school district waits to find out why I voted the way I did. I gather my papers for the last time and leave the chamber to face them. In the process I forget to make a last visual sweep of the place where I had just spent 140 days of the most fascinating days of my life. But no more dramatics are needed tonight, and, besides, we’ll all be back.