The choice of lapel pins says much about the men wearing them. Representative David Simpson wears on his blazer a fingerprint-smudged pin depicting a simple blue Lone Star in the middle with the words Texas and Liberty below. By contrast, earlier this session, Representative Jonathan Stickland came to debate in the House with his suit decorated by a pin depicting an AR-15 assault rifle.

Both men describe themselves as “constitutional conservatives” dedicated to constitutional principles and individual freedom. They are Republican libertarians with a small “L”: less government intrusion results in greater individual liberty. They also were among the 19 members who voted against Joe Straus as speaker. But then the similarities start to fade. One is a simple statement, while the other is the roar of cannon fire.

Simpson is a contrarian who moves through the House with an almost monk-like detachment, quiet and soft-spoken, often not making eye contact with his colleagues. Few offices are farther from the House floor than Simpson’s, located on the basement level of the Capitol extension next door to the House Copy Room. By most measures, his legislative session has been modest at best with 18 bills introduced and seven approved by committee, including one to help a hospital in his district pay for indigent health care.
But Simpson made a small piece of history this week when a House committee approved his bill to decriminalize and deregulate marijuana. House rules mean that committee approval probably is as far as that bill will go, but it was a personal triumph for Simpson and may prompt more discussion about the legalization of medical marijuana.
Simpson said he is pushing the measure for the medicinal use of marijuana, not the recreational use. Government should just get out of the way, he said. People misuse food or alcohol, or even the rattlesnakes from Sweetwater, with limited government interference. Marijuana use should be a case of personal responsibility. “You can use rattlesnakes irresponsibly. I don’t advocate using rattlesnakes, but each year, when we’re in session, we have a whole bunch of them here in the capital, and they play with them,” Simpson said without even a hint of irony in his voice.

On the other hand, Stickland has a personality to match his burly body, often outsized and difficult to ignore. His seat on the House floor is located near the back microphone, making it easy for him to challenge bills on debate. Stickland is anything but quiet, and his constant attacks on bills that he views as infringing liberty have alienated him from many of his colleagues, leading some to taunt or insult him during debate.

In one instance, Stickland knocked a bill off the uncontested calendar banning e-cigarettes on high school campuses because it also would restrict smoking by teachers. Five days later, after debating the bill, the House sent it to the Senate on a vote of 129-14. A principled stand to delay a bill so it doesn’t pass or on a bill so narrowly contested that debate might sway the outcome is one thing, but when the votes are so overwhelmingly lopsided against a legislator, then the stand on principle just becomes noise, a baying at the moon.

Simpson has displayed a far better sense of knowing when to pick his fights, make his points and then not force the train to run him down. “We do need to be really careful as to how we advocate,” Simpson told me when I asked him about his style of debate. “We don’t need to just take the gun out of the liberals hands and turn it on them and tell them what to do. Sometimes as conservatives, we’ve done that.”

If passing bills is a measure of legislative success, note that Stickland has filed 14 bills, and only one has made it out of committee. During the debate on open carry of handguns for license holders, Stickland’s effort to amend “constitutional carry” onto the bill was ruled not germane, and then he complained that his bill on the subject could not even get a hearing. Homeland Security Chairman Larry Phillips swatted him down, saying it was the bad behavior of his supporters that had killed his bill. When Stickland tried to have a public hearing on a bill banning red light cameras last week, Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett ejected him from the committee because some of the witnesses signed up to testify were not even in Austin. That has prompted the House ethics committee to refer the incident over to the Texas Rangers for investigation

Stickland told me that he had no first-hand knowledge of what happened with the witness affirmations. He also contended that the sworn statement at the end of the witness affirmation only goes to whether the information is correct, not to whether the person filling out the form is the witness. Stickland said committees also have established that witnesses do not have to be in Austin to testify because some have heard from witnesses via Skype. (I have seen a witness testify from the London airport via Skype. Several lobbyists told me they register for or against a bill but aren’t in committee when it comes up. Although someone has to be in the Capitol complex to register over the Internet, I’m told it is possible to register merely by pulling into the driveway of the John H. Reagan Building. The House may have more problems with its electronic witness registration than just Stickland’s bill.)

Stickland blames the entire affair on retaliation by Pickett because Stickland knocked a Pickett bill off the uncontested calendar to give Federal Reserve guards police powers. “It’s the same thing as if we let Walmart guards have police power,” Stickland said, explaining why he targeted the Pickett bill. “I think he was on a witch-hunt from the get-go,” Stickland said. “The whole thing reflects badly on the House unfortunately.”

Through this session, Stickland has been called all but a liar by colleagues and been taunted on the floor by a colleague who dangled a cookie on a string in front of him. Stickland said he believes “there has been a loss of a lot of decorum this session, and not just me.” Without naming names, he pointed to instances where Representative Stewart Spitzer was asked in debate about his sex life with his wife, when Borris Miles cursed at Scott Sanford, and when Matt Schaefer refused to take questions during debate from Jessica Farrar.

“We should not be going after people on personal reasons but on principled reasons. I can tell you one hundred percent I have not killed a bill, spoken against a bill, called a point of order on a bill for personal reasons. It’s always been for a principled reason,” Stickland told me.

The two men hold almost identical philosophies. They both argue against bills on libertarian principles. Both have used the rules to knock bills off the calendar. But it is Stickland who is angering his colleagues while the mild-mannered Simpson is getting things done. When asked how he got a marijuana legalization bill out of a Texas House committee, Simpson answered with a soft voice.

“I’m very grateful for my colleagues who supported me and wanted to move the discussion forward,” Simpson said. “I just try to do what’s right and trust the Lord with the consequences.”

(Photo: Jonathan Stickland, seated, and David Simpson/By Bob Daemmrich)