Article 3, Section 5 of the Texas Constitution stipulates that the first thirty days of a regular session of the Legislature should be limited to the introduction of bills and resolutions and acting on emergency matters submitted by the governor. The next thirty days is for committees to hear bills and resolutions and emergency matters; and thereafter the Legislature “shall act upon such bills and resolutions and may be then be pending.” And then there’s this little provision: “[E]ither House may otherwise determine its order of business by an affirmative vote of four-fifths of its membership.”
The four-fifths rule is up for debate in the House tomorrow. Speaker Craddick will need 120 votes to suspend the rule so that the House can pass legislation in the first sixty days of the session. In normal times, the vote to suspend is routine, but Craddick’s vulnerability and the fragile Republican majority have emboldened the Democratic opposition to fight everything he wants to do. Some thought that the successful special session on school finance represented a return to normalcy, but it was clear in the debate over adoption of House rules on the fourth day of the session, when Democrats offered dozens of amendments, most of them designed to embarrass Craddick, that this session is going to be total war.
The problem for the Democrats is that this particular battle is one that they can’t win. If they can’t muster the 31 votes necessary to block suspension of the four-fifths rule, Craddick is in control of the flow of legislation, as the speaker usually is. If the Ds can muster the votes, they simply empower the governor and the Senate to gain control of legislation. The last time the rule was not suspended, in 1981, the liberal Democrats, led by John Bryant and Ron Coleman, blocked the suspension to hamstring the speaker, the late Billy Clayton. Clayton just sent word to the governor (Bill Clements) to designate as emergency legislation all the bills that Clayton wanted to pass. The emergency declaration bypassed the four-fifths rule, so Clayton and Clements controlled the agenda anyway. And senators got to pass their bills while the House was stalemated. If the Democrats block suspension, Rick Perry will be the big winner–in effect, he becomes the chairman of the Calendars committee because of his power to declare emergencies. The Democrats will gain nothing. That doesn’t mean they won’t try, so great is their loathing for Craddick. I’m not even going to attempt to assess blame here. I have written before that the speaker has it within his power to change the tone of the House. He doesn’t want to, and it’s clear that the Democratic “leadership” (if that word applies) doesn’t want him to do it. They would rather fight and embarrass the Republican “leadership” (if that word applies) than get along.
This is really a pathetic situation. It’s too bad this isn’t a card game, so that we could shuffle the cards and get a new hand of leaders for the state.