Sometimes I think the Republicans are bent on self-destruction. The decision last week by State Affairs chairman David Swinford and the committee’s Republican majority to pass a bill blocking state funds for stem cell research is a case in point. Opposition to stem cell research cost the Republicans their U.S. Senate majority, when the issue became decisive in the Missouri Senate race. The use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research has overwhelming support from the American people. These kinds of ideological stands, when the country is facing enormous issues of war and peace, and the state has major policy concerns–water, power generation, higher education, the number of uninsured, to name a few–that are not being dealt with, are causing an erosion of the Republican base in the suburbs. You don’t have to believe me; just ask Republicans who represent the suburbs, as I have. Or check out this Newsweek poll from last October. (I have chosen it because it categorizes voters as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Its overall results are similar to other polls on the issue.)
“Do you favor or oppose using federal tax dollars to fund medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos?”
The concern for Republicans ought to be that the party is losing voters–not to the Democratic party, but to the center, where they are as likely to vote for Democrats as Republicans. The GOP dilemma is that the more defections they suffer, the more ideological their primary electorate becomes, which forces their candidates to move to the right as the country is moving to the center. The leadership of the House is based in places like Midland (you know who), Pampa (Chisum), and Dumas (Swinford), where it is possible to remain comfortable with your beliefs and attempt to inflict them on the rest of the state without fear of being held accountable. You can’t do that if you live in the suburbs. Mike Krusee told me that women switched from voting 60-40 Republican to 60-40 Democrat in his Williamson County district, not just in his race but also for the congressman, John Carter. Stem cell research is the worst issue for Republicans, because it puts them against the expansion of knowledge and human progress for the sake of theological belief.
Swinford’s handling of the hearing created a significant amount of controversy. State Affairs used to be one of the most important committees in the House. Under Pete Laney and his predecessors, its members included major commitee chairs with the knowledge to consider bills on major subjects and the savvy to know what to pass and what to kill. It was a balanced committee between Rs and Ds. When Tom Craddick became speaker, he split the committee, sending the real work to Regulated Industries and leaving State Affairs with hot-button issues like immigration and religion, to be determined by a committee loaded with Republican back-benchers (Byron Cook not included). One of the ABCs cracked to me earlier in the session, “If Tom had really wanted to punish me, he’d have put me on State Affairs.”
Last week, Swinford had one of those wee-hours hearings that is the bane of serving on State Affairs. Six stem cell research bills were scheduled to be heard. His conduct of the hearing has been questioned by stem cell research advocates. Here is a letter they wrote to the Speaker:
Dear Speaker Craddick,
I write on behalf of myself, a pro stem cell advocate, and several Texas constituents who attended the State of Affairs committee meeting on April 12, 2007. I believe you and all house members would want to know how the spirit of decency and democracy were violated, in particular, by committee chairman, Representative David Swinford. On the morning of April 12, expert witnesses and advocates from all over the state arrived at the Capitol to give testimony before the State Affairs committee. The committee’s only agenda was to discuss bills regarding stem cell research. It was, in fact, Representative Swinford who requested expert witnesses, because the hearing was to be educational in its tenor. When the committee re-convened at 10:30 p.m., HB 3678, a bill pending in committee [not involving stem cell research–PB] was introduced. By this time all the expert witnesses, most of whom had traveled from other cities to present testimony and who had waited all day and into the night to testify, and many advocates who were there to support bills that were pro stem cell research were forced to wait another 3 hours. Many of them were gone when the stem cell bills were finally heard beginning around 1:30 AM. People at the hearing were told that HB 3678 (a right to religious expression in school bill) would take precedence and would be the first order of discussion. Witnesses who gave testimony on this bill were told to take as much time as they needed. Children ten years of age and younger gave testimony and recanted stories of their kindergarten experiences. The atmosphere in the hearing room took on a circus-like tone. One witness was allowed to testify for 45 minutes.
The committee did not discuss the stem cell research bills until 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. Representative Swinford was told by Representative Byron Cook that advocates in the audience had health conditions and should be given consideration to speak first. Representative Swinford ignored Representative’s Cook plea. A woman who drove from Houston and who is afflicted with Parkinson’s was kept waiting in her seat until 2:00 am. Friday morning. When she rose to testify her trek to the podium was a difficult maneuver, and she could not have made it without the assistance of her husband. I consider Representative Swinford’s decision to delay her testimony an act of human cruelty and not worthy of an elected official’s conduct. Because of his handling of the schedule and his refusal to create a fair process by limiting all testimony to a standard length of time, there were not expert witnesses available when committee members began asking scientific questions. This was in spite of the fact that the clerk of the committee had been informed of all the expert witnesses’ time constraints. His disingenuous and transparent attempt to discourage and silence pro stem cell supporters was shameful. The hearing adjourned at 5:30 a.m.
I am new to the political advocacy process and will not be deterred from speaking and making my voice heard. However, after the State Affairs hearing, I truly believe a marginally committed person might have been easily manipulated into thinking that our government process is a vehicle for those in power to do as they please, without any ramifications or accountability for their actions. I believe in our system and in our elected officials to do what is just and in the best interest of the state of Texas. My 17 year old son testified Friday morning at 1:30 a.m. It was his first “hands on” introduction to the political process, and even he could see the blatant abuse that occurred. The hearing was not an example of democracy at its finest.
In your position as elected Speaker of the Texas House your influence on process as well as policy is wide ranging. I hope that you will take this information and use it to remind those holding chairmanships in the Texas House that this is America where all citizens have the right and the duty to participate in the political process. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.
Laura Templeton, Austin
Vice-President, Texans for Advancement of Medical Research, Bellaire
President, Texas Parkinson’s Action Network, Houston
The other missive that was critical of Swinford was a press release from the Texas Freedom Network:
AUSTIN – The president of the Texas Freedom Network today sharply condemned Friday’s snap vote by the House State Affairs Committee to bar state funding for promising medical research involving embryonic stem cells.
“This vote was a sneak attack on patients and families,” TFN President Kathy Miller said. “It’s a shameful case of putting politics ahead of science as well as patients and their families who are looking to this promising medical research for hope.”
The State Affairs Committee’s vote was on House Bill 225 by state Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney. Paxton’s bill would bar state funding for any biomedical research for which federal funding was prohibited on January 1 of this year. The effect of the bill would be to tie the hands of state policy makers by prohibiting any state funding for embryonic stem cell research even if Congress or a future administration lifts the federal ban on public funding for this medical research.
H.B. 225 was the only bill considered by the committee that would bar or restrict stem cell research. All of the other bills considered by the committee, including H.B. 2704 by Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, would protect or promote this vital research.
The committee heard testimony from stem cell research supporters until nearly 6 a.m. on Friday. Later that afternoon, however, Chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas, called a snap vote on H.B. 225 in the middle of discussion on a completely unrelated bill (H.B. 13). Most committee supporters of stem cell research were out of the room at the time.
Miller pointed to national polls … that show a large and growing majority of Americans support medical research involving both embryonic and adult stem cells. Scientists believe that research involving embryonic stem cells holds the strongest promise for developing treatments for medical conditions such as spinal cord injuries, cancer, juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
“This sneaky vote was just a cheap political maneuver that ignores the will of Texans and the outcry from patients and their families,” Miller said.
I don’t agree with the TNF’s suggestion that this bill was passed on a sneaky vote. I looked at the video archives of the Friday meeting and read the minutes. Swinford laid out three bills shortly after the committee convened in the morning. One of them was HB 225, Ken Paxton’s stem cell bill. That made it eligible to be voted on, although the actual vote was not taken for several hours. The audio picked up Swinford saying to Jessica Farrar, who opposed the bill, “Jessica, you need to vote no on this.” It didn’t make any difference that several stem cell advocates on the committee were out of the room. Had all members of the committee been presnt, the bill would have passed 6-3, with Byron Cook as the only Republican no vote. The one thing that I would fault Swinford for is his description of the bill, that “It tracks federal law.” That’s true, but there’s more. The operative provision of the bill reads, “A person may not use state money for biomedical research if federal law prohibits the use of federal money for that research on January 1, 2007.” If Paxton’s bill were to take effect, the state would still be prevented from funding it even if federal law changed so that stem cell research was no longer prohibited. That seems, in a word, crazy.
If the bill gets to the floor, it could pass. The bill has bipartisan support (Ds Olivo and Escobar are co-sponsors). The main hurdle is Calendars chair Beverly Woolley, who is a staunch proponent of stem cell research and was the author of one of the five pro-research bills that died in committee. In Craddick’s House, chairs don’t have the power they enjoyed in the Democratic era, but Woolley presumably can kill the bill, unless a higher power says otherwise. I’m sure the Democratic leadership would be thrilled for the bill to get to the floor so that Republican suburbanites can target themselves by voting against the research.