Who would have guessed that the House was going to refight the Civil War today? The last bill on the calendar seemed inocuous enough: “Relating to the removal, relocation, or alteration of certain monuments or memorials on state property.” You wouldn’t think that this would produce a two-hour debate over slavery, especially since the identical bill passed the House in 2005 by 145-0, only to die in the Senate. Author Sid Miller’s concern was that a family had given some money to a university for a building, but a big donor came along later and the university renamed the building for him. Unfortunately, he gave this explanation at the end of the debate rather than the beginning. His initial explanation was that he wanted to make sure that monuments, statues, and plaques couldn’t be removed without the approval of the Legislature, the Historical Commission, or the Preservation Board. Well, everybody knows that there are some mighty handsome Confederate monutements on the Capitol grounds, and a rather embarrassing plaque hidden away behind the stairwell to the Senate, and before long Senfronia Thompson was saying, “We don’t want anybody’s statue on the Capitol grounds who was engaged in an insurrection against the United States, we don’t want their statue on the Capitol grounds” and offering an amendment. Charlie Howard offered a tribute to “General Wheeler, sitting on his horse here, Fighting Joe Wheeler, led the Confederate cavalry. Your bill would say we can’t have him on our grounds.” Her amendment was tabled, but more followed. Veasey followed with an amendment to leave statues up to university regents. Crabb accused him of trying to rewrite history. Veasey came back with another amendment barring memorials honoring anyone who owned slaves or belonged to a terrorist organization (the Ku Klux Klan). Isett, who recently did a tour of duty in Iraq, took offense: “I wear the medal of the Global War on Terrorism,” he said, his voice breaking a little. “Are you trying to say that if we vote against this amendment, we’re supporting terrorism?”
Charlie Howard came back to the microphone to say that George Washington owned slaves; we couldn’t have a statue for him. Emotions were getting pretty heated. Thompson grabbed the front mike and said, “It’s amazing to me that a bill like this is on the floor, when bills we need to be discussing can’t get here,” and blamed Speaker Craddick. Calendars chair Woolley (as in “wild and,” which is what the mood was) said, “I allowed this bill on the floor.” For a moment it looked as if Woolley and Thompson might come to blows right in front of the speaker’s desk. Thompson had an amendment prohibiting a statue to an atheist. Miller’s motion to table failed, then he accepted the amendment.
Members were dreading the vote; Republicans were put in a position of looking like racists if they voted for the bill. Hard feelings would have lingered, except that Swinford, the chair of State Affairs, which had approved the bill, spoke first: “I come here to apologize for our committee,” he said. “I can assure you that when this bill was posted to our committee, it was about some family putting a name on a building at a university and later on Mr. Big, the big bucks guy, comes along and says, ‘I want my name on this building,’ and the folks who deserved it got flushed. This was never intended to be like this. We had no intention of putting anything this divisive on the House floor and I apologize.”[Added Thursday morning after due reflection: Swinford was right to apologize. A veteran chairman ought to know that highway-naming bills and statue bills cause chaos on the floor.] The House gave him an ovation, and the tension dissipated. Miller asked that his bill be postponed to July 4, 2007. Another ovation.
And so we had a happy ending after all. I can’t imagine anything like this occurring in Congress. What makes the Legislature different is that even in the current climate of increased partisanship, the culture here is that veteran members protect the institution. [More due reflection: Next time, I hope it won’t take them two hours to do it.]