LIVE REPORT MONDAY NIGHT (and Tuesday a.m. post mortem)

The House is about to vote on a challenge by Geren and Talton to appeal the ruling of Speaker Craddick that the placement of a local bill by Ryan Guillen on the Major State Calendar violated Rule 6 Section 7 #2. Major State is defined as a calendar “on which shall appear bills of statewide effect, not emergency in nature, which establish or change state policy in a major field of governmental activity and which shall have a major impact in application through the state without regard to class, area, or other limiting factors.” Craddick made his ruling, however, based on Rule 6, Section 25: “[T]he Committee on Calendars shall have full authority to make placements on calendars on whatever order is necessary and desirable under the circumstances.”

Geren and Talton’s position is one that Craddick’s critics have repeatedly made: That the rules have to mean something and can’t be routinely ignored.

As members argue for the bill, the stakes appear to be enormous–that if Craddick loses (which I don’t think he will), his speakership is over. Fred Hill: “I have told the speaker that this was not a wise decision [to place the bill on Major State]. I think this body would be better off if we put this behind us. If he loses, we all lose. We need to put this behind us. I urge everybody to vote for the body. Let’s vote to sustain the speaker on this.” Once again, the Craddick Ds came to the speaker’s aid. Dutton helped stall from the back mike while the Craddick forces worked the floor. A little less obviously, Turner took his time from the microphone.

Hartnett, defending the ruling, made a good point that the Guillen bill makes a finding that the legislation will protect the watershed, which has more than a local impact. Still, the if-it-walks-like-a-duck rule applies. This was a local bill.

Now J. Davis has found a bill by Thompson, who raised the point of order, that one of her bills in 1997 “relating to the justice of the peace courts of Harris County” appeared on Major State. Thompson rejoined that her bill was not local and that no point of order was raised.

Now Guillen is speaking. This bill is of great importance to Zapata County. The county has no incorporated city. The county is growing rapidly. This bill would help regulated that growth. It would help ensure that the Rio Grande isn’t polluted. (Essentially, it gives the county regulatory power. The Realtors are against it.) I will ask you to sustain the ruling of the chair.

Gattis is saying, How do we get out of this box. I’ve talked to the speaker and he supports it. I’m asking each and every one of you to vote no, to not sustain the ruling of the chair. The reason why is that it’s a local bill. After this is over, we need to check ourselves and decide what we want this body to be.

I think he and Bonnen (who said this is no big deal, it’s a local bill) may have diffused it.

Dutton says he has found a flaw in the rules, that after a bill is knocked off the local calendar, it has nowhere to go.

Geren says, Just vote no. The motion is shall the chair be sustained. This is not about vacating the chair.

NOW FOR THE VOTE: 50 AYES, 87 NOS. The chair is not sustained.

Whew! Back from the brink. I think the veteran members–Hill, Bonnen, Gattis, and, on the other side, Geren–did a good job of defusing the situation with common sense. Throw out all the legalisms and what’s left is the obvious fact that this was a local bill.

While all this was going on, I called Bill Messer, a former chairman of Calendars. (Yes, yes, I know; he’s a friend of the speaker’s.) He said that the precedent cited by the speaker could have been one that occurred during his chairmanship. Then-Appropriations chairman Jim Rudd was in conference committee and was not present to lay out his local bill. Calendars, acting on Rule 6, Section 25, put Rudd’s bill on Major State. Under that scenario, Craddick’s ruling was not as arbitrary as it seemed. (That is my conclusion, not Bill’s.)

This morning (Tuesday) I talked to another former Calendars chair, Hugo Berlanga. He reiterated what Messer said: Calendars has broad discretion. “Local bills showed up on Major State all the time,” he said.

I just got a call from the floor. The caller told me that the early efforts to mount a defense for Craddick yielded only three members who were willing to speak for sustaining the ruling, and one was a Craddick D (Puente, I’m told). That does not portend well for the future.

I am beginning to wonder about Craddick’s ability to make it to the finish line this session, much less to the starting gate next January. The House had a major blow-up on Friday. It had a major blow-up today. The entire chamber is a powder keg that could go off at any time. The anti-Craddick forces sense that they have the speaker on the ropes. He takes a pounding every day. Point of order, Mr. Speaker. Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Speaker. Will you publish your ruling in the Journal, Mr. Speaker? Will you recognize me for a motion, Mr. Speaker? It is ugly out there. He had to fight off hostile parliamentary maneuvers–and make another ridiculous ruling–just to pass his local bill for a Midland County hotel-motel tax.

As I see it, the speaker has three major problems:

(1) His temperament. Craddick can’t stand to lose. He wants to crush the opposition even when it isn’t in his own interest to do so, as was the case tonight. He can’t bring himself to allow the other side to win even an insignificant victory, and he ends up looking small and petty. The constant warfare is beginning to affect his judgment. His opponents have goaded him into striking down valid points of order, just to prevent them from winning. The more he resorts to power plays, the more wobbly his support gets–not because Republicans don’t respect him, but because they are weary of the endless strife that goes on every day, and will go on until the day he is no longer speaker.

(2) The absence of a team. Craddick’s biggest mistake was to centralize power in the Speaker’s office. Chairmanships have been devalued. The speaker makes policy. Major bills are written by his staff. As a result, committee chairs–the foundation of previous speakers’ power–have neither the authority nor the status to act as enforcers. Do you think for a moment that Beverly Woolley could have worked the floor and saved the day? The enforcer is in the speaker’s office, of course: Nancy Fisher. But the closeness of the speaker’s race stripped the speaker of his ability to twist arms. He can’t afford to alienate a single vote. The reason why pro-Craddick members get their bills set on the regular and local calendars, and the anti-Craddick members don’t, isn’t just partisanship, and isn’t just revenge; it’s speaker politics. It’s like Sea World: The dophins who jump when told expect to get their fish. When the situation deteriorated last Friday, and again on Monday, there was no one capable of organizing a defense, or working the floor to maintain discipline. It was a free-for-all.

(3) Lack of reciprocity. Even Craddick’s supporters are disgruntled, especially those who aspire to be leaders themselves. Here are a couple of things that solid Republican members have said to me:
* “He thinks that we are here for him, not that he is here for us.” This was from a committee chair. I have heard some variation on this many times.
* “He doesn’t care whether I’m here or not. In fact, he’d be happier if I’d quit.” Why? Because veterans have a memory of what the House used to be like, before Craddick. Freshman have no historical memory.
* “He cares more about his friends than he cares about us.”

Our editor, Evan Smith, asked me this morning who was to blame for what has gone on this session. I waffled, but I think that there can be only one answer. The speaker has it in his power to set the tone. He can be magnanimous, or he can be confrontational. He has chosen the latter from day one of his speakership. The opposition Democrats cannot pass any significant bills on the regular calendar. They can’t serve on major committees unless their seniority allows it, which occurs in only a few cases. Calendar rules and the dividing of property tax cut legislation made it impossible for them to present their alternatives in debate. Whatever happened to the saying, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? The Democrats have no stake in the session. They have nothing to do except figure out ways to torture Craddick on the floor, day in and day out. Idle minds are the devil’s workshop. Do you think that Pete Gallego would be trying to bust Craddick every day if he were vice-chair of Appropriations? Do you think that Jim Dunnam would be scheming against Craddick with every breath he takes if he were vice-chair of Civil Practices? Do you think that Craig Eiland would be lending his rhetorical and analytical skills to the anti-Craddick effort if he were carrying the teacher retirement bill?

I’m not suggesting that the Democrats, or, if you prefer, the anti-Craddicks, are angels. They are not. They were particularly out of line when they persisted in their efforts to kill Craddick’s local bill for a hotel-motel tax. That was an act of total disrespect, one of the most discourteous actions I have ever seen on this floor.

Yet, the Speaker was killing their local bills. Please don’t try to tell me that Craddick was doing no such thing. There are only two possibilities to explain what was occurring on Local and Consent: (1) Craddick was ordering Charlie Howard to kill the Democrats/ABCs bills; (2) Craddick was allowing Charlie Howard to kill the Democrats’/ABCs bills. There are no other choices. And the speaker persisted in this course even after his opponents made it clear that they would kill selected Republicans’ bills in return. Is there any other conclusion to draw other than that he was willing to throw his own Republicans under the bus for the sake of exacting his revenge against his enemies? The speaker acted against his own best interests.

How do I judge what is proper? I can’t explain it precisely. For me, watching the House is like going to a symphony concert. Sometimes the music gets loud. Sometimes it’s soft. Sometimes it’s fast. Sometimes it’s slow. But it’s rarely off-key. I have heard my favorite pieces often enough that I know what’s supposed to happen, and when somebody misses a note, it stands out. That’s how I watch the Legislature. The local calendar is a relatively simple piece of music. When somebody hits the wrong note, I hear it. I wince on the floor, just like I do when the French horns blow it, so to speak, at the symphony. Here is my view on the right note regarding calendars. The regular calendar exists to KILL bills. The local calendar exists to PASS bills. One of the interesting philosophical questions from Friday night was the question of whether the passage of a local bill is a privilege or a right. I believe the latter. This right is not absolute. A bill like Ryan Guillen’s should never have been on the local calendar. It was local, but it wasn’t consent. It gave county commissioners in Zapata County the authority to impose development regulations. Developers and Realtors hate the idea of giving county commissioners ordinance making power. And well they should. It would be the biggest shakedown racket of all time. The irony of the huge fight over Craddick’s ruling is that this wasn’t even a partisan issue. It was a lobby issue. I betcha the industry was behind the point of order, although CSI will never find the fingerprints.

Where does this leave Craddick? As I see it, the mob has stormed the Bastille and liberated the prisoners, but they have let the king keep his head. For now. It’s clear that there is a growing body of Republican elders that no longer supports Tom Craddick in the way he runs the House. It is also clear that they respect the institution too much, and Craddick as well, for all that he has done over the years, to take the drastic step of moving to vacate the chair. There will be no public beheading in the Place de la Concorde. At some point a delegation of elders may call on the speaker in private and ask him not to seek another term. This happened to Billy Clayton, when he was facing trial for bribery (he was acquitted), and it generated a great story. The delegation was made up entirely of lobbyists who were worried that if Clayton were convicted, a liberal Democrat might win a speaker’s race following the next election. They wanted Gib Lewis, and they thought they had a better shot if Clayton resigned. They had sworn to stick together. So they told Clayton him how concerned they were about him, how the best thing for him was to step down and concentrate of his defense. Clayton looked at the twelve or so men and picked out the weakest of the bunch. “Joe, is that how you feel?” he asked. “Oh, no, Mr. Speaker,” was the instantaneous reply. “I think you need to stay right where you are.”

Craddick will not be an easy sell. He will know that the reason the elders are there is because none of them wants to take the precipitous step of filing the papers to run for speaker. The right thing for the House is for Craddick to announce on sine die that he will not run for speaker again. But Craddick is like those NRA gun owners. You can have this gavel when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.

And the keys to the apartment.