Maybe it is just a cosmic coincidence that next Tuesday’s special legislative session begins shortly after the premiere of the final two seasons of HBO’s popular medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, a tale in which political intrigue has more to do with power for power’s sake than the good of the people of fictional Westeros.
On the surface, the thirty-day special session called by Texas Governor Greg Abbott should lack intrigue because only one piece of legislation must pass—a bill to keep alive the state agencies that license doctors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychologists, and professional counselors.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took that bill hostage at the end of the regular session, in order to force a special session on transgender bathroom access. In response, Abbott agreed to add the bathroom bill and other social conservative and libertarian agenda items to the special session call only after the Senate approves the agency-renewal legislation. With that, Abbott created more scenarios for how this session will end than the Khaleesi has dragons. (She has three, in case you don’t follow the show.)
Here are some of my theories on what will happen, explained, in part, through Game of Thrones.
Hail the Conquering Heroes—Patrick and Abbott get everything they want after opposition in the Texas House collapses. Their triumph would be in passing legislation preventing transgender public school students from using bathrooms and changing rooms not of their gender as assigned on their birth certificate. It also would deliver blows to local governments in the form of automatic tax-rollback elections, restrictions on growth in spending, and limitations on local governments’ ability to annex land and restrict development through permitting.
Like Game of Thrones, this scenario is a fantasy. House Speaker Joe Straus, in an interview with New Yorker magazine writer Lawrence Wright, noted that were the transgender bathroom bill to pass it could well result in some suicides (the transgender community sees higher than average abuse and suicide rates), and that was something Joe Straus was not going to have on his conscience. Also, House members are close enough to their local governments that they are not likely to support sweeping restrictions on their city councils and commissioner courts.
Sunset and Sine Die–As promoted by the Houston Chronicle editorial board, the Legislature passes the Sunset bills required to keep the five agencies alive and then adjourns sine day; that is, without another day. This is wishful thinking. For one, Patrick did not kill the Sunset legislation to force a special session just to say, “Kings Landing, I was only kidding. Forget it.” No, Sunset and Sine Die means a unilateral adjournment by the House while the Senate keeps meeting, portraying Straus and his House members as do-nothing legislators. The pressure on Abbott to call another session would be enormous.
Cersei Never Sleeps–The ultimate Game of Thrones survivor, Queen Cersei almost always seems to have plan up her sleeve when things go wrong–even if that means burning everything to the ground. Patrick is not as sinister as Cersei, but he can fulfill Abbott’s demand by sending the House Sunset legislation to save the Medical Board. But that bill may include something that requires a House amendment to fix, so the bill comes back to the Senate and puts Patrick, once again, in control of whether there’s another special session. Maybe it is something simple requiring a few words to fix, or maybe it is something contentious, like a restriction on doctors who perform transgender surgery or abortions. This rates as a reasonably possible scenario.
Run for the Border–Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune recently mused that the state Democrats are mulling a “fantasy getaway” to break the legislative quorum to block the social conservative legislation. This is sort of like how Yara and Theon Greyjoy escape to go find Daenerys Targaryen, rather than accept the decision of the Kingsmoot that Yara not been named Queen of the Ironborn. Ramsey–Ross Ramsey, not Ramsay Bolton–noted that spending the rest of the summer in New Orleans might not be all that bad for Texas Democrats. But the one lesson learned by the great quorum breaks of 2003 over redistricting is that quorum breaks don’t work, at least not when the governor can call a new special session. They are great theater, but the resulting publicity likely would shake the resolve of those House Republicans who just wish the whole transgender bathroom thing would go away.
Déjà vu All Over Again–This is the scenario I think is the most likely. The summer session is just the sequel to the regular session with the same plot. The Senate under Patrick passes the Sunset bill and the social conservative legislation. The House passes the Sunset bill and then sends the Senate the “watered down” bathroom bill that it passed in the regular session. The bill essentially tells schools to be sensitive to students who want privacy while changing clothes or performing bodily functions. The House also would pass its version of local property tax reform, which includes greater disclosure but lacks the automatic tax-rollback elections demanded by Patrick and the Senate Republicans. After that, everyone stares at one another until the thirty days are up, with an occasional news conference to decry the other side. Straus and the House avoid the do-nothing label. Patrick still blames the House for the failure of the bathroom bill. And Abbott tells his constituents that there is no sense having another special session when the Legislature can’t come to an agreement on the priorities he designated in his call. The status quo is maintained. Rough GoT equivalent: neither the Lannisters nor the Starks overpower the other–even though there’s lots of bad blood between them.
A Twist at the End–If we’ve learned nothing from Game of Thrones, there’s always the possibility of the unexpected, a twist at the end. So if you have scenarios of your own, we’d love to hear them in the comments.