The House spent last Friday debating its rules. Since the rules don’t change much from session to session, you would think that this could have been done in an hour or two, but the House never does anything in an hour or two except break for lunch. It took a mind-numbing eight hours to deal with 47 amendments and an assortment of amendments to the amendments. I couldn’t be at the Capitol for the debate, having office duties, but I did watch it on the House video archives over the last few days.

The plot line was that the Democrats, having failed to end the Craddick speakership the previous Tuesday, seized the opportunity to renew their attacks on him. The objective was not to win changes to the rules–the Republicans still have the majority–but to make Republicans cast embarrasing votes. For the Rs, Burt Solomons was on the front mike defending the proposed rules, with assistance from Will Hartnett asking questions from the back mike. They played good-cop, bad-cop, with Solomons staying relaxed and conversational and Hartnett leading the counterattack against the Democratic proposals. Some of the Democratic amendments were good-faith efforts to provide more information to the public, but others were aimed at the way Craddick has run the House during the past four years. I doubt that members of the public who happened to watch the rules debate had any idea about what was going on, but the insiders knew.

The key Democratic proposals:

* Eddie Rodriguez, Austin: Allocate half of the seats on the Appropriations committee on the basis of seniority, rather than allow the speaker the right to appoint the entire committee. The The amendment would have restored the practice that existed during the Laney speakership and continues to be the practice today on all committees except Appropriations. When Craddick became speaker in 2003, he got rid of seniority appointments on Appropriations. I seldom agree with Craddick’s management style, but in this case I think he had every right to do what he did. There was a change in speakers and a change in the party having the majority, and Craddick could not have governed effectively with an Appropriations committee stuffed with veteran Laney hands–particularly since the budget writers were facing a $9.9 billion shortfall. Craddick had the opportunity to hold out an olive branch to Democrats by reappointing three veteran Ds to the committee who lost their seniority positions (Garnet Coleman, Pete Gallego, and Scott Hochberg), but, as you may have noticed, Craddick doesn’t fancy olives.

Back to the debate: Solomons opposed the return to seniority by saying that the new system opened membership in the committee to younger members, including freshmen, and further argued that putting 14 senior members on the committee would bump other members from the panel and have a ripple effect that could affect all committees. The arguments didn’t matter; Rodriguez’s amendment went down by a two-to-one margin.

* Craig Eiland, Galveston: Respect members preferences for seniority. Currently, veteran members can use their seniority to try to get on a committee of their choice (except, of course, Appropriations). They stipulate their top preferences, and a computer allocates half the positions on each committee to the most senior members choosing that committee. Eiland’s amendment said that members could not submit a blank designation or change their designation. Why did this matter? Because Democrats believe that in a previous session, the speaker’s office had asked a Republican to change his seniority preference to Transportation in order to knock a Democrat with less seniority off the Transportation committee. The amendment was tabled.

* Yvonne Davis, Dallas: Make committee meetings subject to the criminal penalties of the Open Meetings law. This amendment harkened back to the tort reform debate during the 2003 session. The House Civil Practices committee was alleged to have held an illegal meeting behind closed doors. Democrats tried to raise a point of order against the bill, and Craddick ultimately passed the buck to the entire House. (For a more complete description of the episode, read George Scott Christian’s “Legislative and Political News Update” of March 23, 2003.) Davis had been a member of the committee, and her proposed amendment to the rules attempted to put teeth in the Open Meetings law. Solomons pointed that that the amendment meant that members might have to go hire a criminal lawyer, and the amendment was defeated.

* Jim Dunnam, Waco: Prohibit lobbyists from having access to restricted areas behind the House chamber while the House is debating legislation. The area outside the House chamber is set up for lobbyists, and, for that matter, constituents, to meet with legislators. Messengers will take notes asking for a meeting to members’ desks. But last year members of both parties were angry that vouchers advocate James Leininger was allowed to buttonhole members in the restricted area behind the chamber on the day that the bill was being debated. Solomons accepted the amendment and it was adopted. But suddenly there was a big huddle around the speakers podium, and the next thing you knew, Dunnam was moving to reconsider the amendment and Hartnett was asking questions about whether the amendment discriminated against the speaker, whose offices are in the restricted area. During the debate, Dunnam asked the members, “Do you really want to be on the record as saying that a registered lobbyist should have better access to the powers of government than your constituents?” Evidently they did. Later, Dunnam would bring up the amendment again, offering to exempt the speakers office–and lost again.

* Another Dunnam amendment would have required members to disclose any business relationship with a registered lobbyist or with another member. Another defeat.

* Senfronia Thompson tried to rein in the practice by the speaker-dominated Calendars Committee of setting rules for floor debate that make it difficult or impossible for Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) to offer amendments to important bills. This is one of the Democrats’ major objections; Thompson proposed that such rules require a two-thirds vote to be effective (giving the Democrats a veto). She lost.

I don’t agree with all the Democrats’ amendments. I don’t like applying criminal penalties to violations that may be inadvertent. I don’t think that the Calendars Committee should be restricted by the House rules (although I do believe that the restrictions it places on debates have gone too far at times). But the Ds basic criticism of the way that Craddick has run the House is well taken.

The Democrats lost every vote, but the Republicans can take little satisfaction in their victories. They voted to allow lobbyists access to restricted areas that ordinary people can’t use; they voted that members should not have to reveal any business relationships with registered lobbyists; and they voted to exempt illegal closed committee meetings from criminal penalties.
These votes will not look very good come reelection time. Craddick could have prevented this outcome by allowing Solomons to accept the amendments–or by allowing his floor lieutenants to tweak the amendments to remove potential problems. Instead, this was the same old story of the speaker making his own members cast bad votes.