Have you heard? The Eighty-eighth session of the Texas Legislature is underway. For the next 124 days, the Lege, as it’s known ’round here, will meet in its regular session until it adjourns sine die on May 29. (“Sine die” is Austinese for “thank goodness it’s over.”)
The Lege, God love it, is the oldest and most important institution in Texas, more so even than college football and the Department of Transportation. It is the seat of power of the world’s ninth-largest economy. Its 181 lawmakers regularly make decisions that alter the trajectories of the lives of millions inside and outside the state. The Lege’s numbered sessions form a continuous thread that links every generation in the state’s history down to the present one, which meets in one of the nation’s most beautiful state capitol buildings.
But you will find few Texans singing patriotic hymns about the return of the Lege—or even remarking upon it with much interest. The apathy many feel about state lawmakers is helped along mightily by a factor outside their control: our Legislature is indecipherable. Making sense of it is a full-time job, one that few who aren’t paid a lot of money to do so (i.e., lobbyists) ever master. For all the public power it wields, the Lege is a parochial, inefficient, and secretive institution. Many lawmakers don’t have a good grasp of what’s going on much of the time. And if they don’t, how could you possibly be expected to?
The Lege wasn’t specifically designed to be unaccountable and opaque. But it is, and it stays that way because the way it does business benefits certain parties. The Lege gives a few folks strong control over the system, gives big money ample ways to influence the process, and helps protect everyone involved from accountability. It’s a big club that makes the folks in it feel important and mystifies anyone who isn’t an insider, and it’s been that way as long as anyone living can remember.
As the madness starts again, then, we here at Texas Monthly thought we’d step back and take a swing at explaining some basics. What follows isn’t a tip sheet for this particular session or a who’s who guide to the important players. We start from the premise that while the players change, the game stays pretty much the same. So here are a few ways to better understand the game of state democracy, Texas-style.
1. The Lege is dysfunctional by design
The pace of the Legislature resembles, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the way bankruptcy unfolds: slowly, then all at once. The Lege only meets in its regular session every other year from January to May—not a lot of time to take care of business for a state with more than 30 million residents and a $250 billion biennial budget. (Only three other states—Montana, North Dakota, and Nevada—have legislatures that don’t meet every year.) And yet little happens for the first couple months or so, when new lawmakers can barely find the bathrooms. Legislators adjourn early and take long weekends. Early in a session, no one seems in much of a rush. A House Speaker is elected. Committee assignments are made. The governor gives his State of the State address. Resolutions recognizing, say, January 25, 2023, as Deer Park Chamber of Commerce Day are unanimously passed. Some of it is important, but it’s mostly handled by leadership and often quite perfunctory.
The real nuts and bolts of lawmaking—hearing, debating, and passing legislation—don’t really begin in earnest until March. And then, what began as a trot in January becomes a full-on gallop by April and May, culminating in an often-chaotic final few days when sleep-deprived legislators and their staffs race against the clock to complete the people’s business, or at least pass a balanced budget, which is the only legislation they are constitutionally required to pass. Under the pink dome, in those final days of May ahead of sine die, night bleeds into day while the margarita machines whirl and homesick politicians pray that the governor doesn’t call a special session. (In 2021, Governor Greg Abbott called three special sessions, keeping lawmakers in Austin long past their expire-by dates.)
This dilatory scheme is baked into the institution. The Texas Constitution, written in 1876 as part of a furious and violent backlash to Reconstruction, imposed considerable limits on state government, including the Lege. Instead of full-time elected officials, the state would be run by citizen-legislators, who would come from their farms to the capital like Cincinnatus from his plow and make decisions for the good of the common (white) man before going home. Because these farmers and ranchers would need to work most of the year, they would meet only once every other year, for a 140-day session. They could come to Austin, work a few months, and then go home to the missus. They would also get paid peanuts—nearly nothing—to emphasize that this was not supposed to be a full-time job, or something any officeholder should get used to. The Lege was supposed to be a weak, limited lawmaking body.
In important ways, the Legislature is now the opposite of what folks in 1876 envisioned. Instead of humble citizen-legislators, most lawmakers are independently wealthy—and often become notably wealthier while in office. And instead of prudent, limited government, we have big government run by lawmakers who don’t have enough time or expertise to truly reckon with the consequences of what they’re doing.
The business of running a modern state stresses this antiquated arrangement. In 2021, more than 10,000 bills were proposed and more than 3,800 passed. That’s a lot of work to cram into 140 days. Yet the constitution prohibits legislators from passing anything except emergency bills—emergency items can only be designated by the governor—for the first 60 days. That leaves 80 days to actually make laws. No wonder, then, that sometimes mistakes are made. Plumbing boards are abolished. Sunday voting is inadvertently restricted. And Democrats, the forever minority, can use the late hour to wield the few blunt instruments they possess by, for example, getting on a plane to Washington, D.C.
2. It’s easier to kill, not pass, bills at the Lege
This is really a corollary of number one, but an important one to underscore. For reasons stated above, the Legislature is institutionally geared toward inaction. Between the arcane rules, the myriad end-of-session deadlines, the various committee choke points, and the numerous enemies that any controversial legislation attracts, most legislation is doomed. That’s one reason why many Lege veterans follow a “rule of three”: it takes that many sessions to get a bill passed.
This environment allows anarchists to flourish. One of the most potent weapons for bomb throwers at the Lege is the POO. That’s the unfortunate nickname for a point of order—the legislative equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. The POO is a parliamentary maneuver that calls attention to a potential violation of the rules, such as an improperly filled-out witness affirmation form. Here’s how it plays out: a lawmaker rises to state his or her POO, and then the parliamentarian for each chamber (the House and the Senate) researches the issue and makes a decision on whether the POO is valid or not. If the POO prevails, then the bill must go back through the whole process. Former representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford and one of the least-popular critters to ever inhabit the Texas House, once used a POO to kill a bill that would’ve prevented some animal shelters from euthanizing animals, arguing that resources shouldn’t be wasted on “animals that don’t have a chance.”
Late in the session, with deadlines looming, a successful point of order can not only take down a particular bill, it can also cause extensive collateral damage, flushing whole calendars with a single POO. (Sorry.) And anarchistic lawmakers in the House can also rely on another delay tactic called chubbing. Chubbing is, to put it simply, talking real slow-like in order to delay the business of the House. For example, Stickland—it’s always Stickland!—once chubbed a host of uncontroversial measures that would typically pass with unanimous consent. This was a particularly unpopular move for two reasons: one, it killed legislation that would’ve tried to prevent poor children from being shamed over their free school lunches, and two, it forced the other lawmakers to listen to Stickland talk at length.
3. Almost nobody knows what’s going on
Congratulations! You’ve been elected a state representative from a small town out in the sticks. You want to do good. You’ve wanted to do good ever since you were a kid pledging an oath to the Texas flag in elementary school. You’ve read all you can about the Lege and how it works, and swallowed as much Robert’s Rules of Order as you can. Now take those books, rip out their pages, and flush them down the toilet. They’re useless. Welcome to the Thunderdome.
For 150 years, this has been the basic reality of the Legislature: the lawmakers are part-time, but the big special interests are full-time. Public agencies are full-time, and so are the major corporations, with their legions of full-time lobbyists. Hell, so are the mayors in your district. The governor and lieutenant governor and the other big fellas you need to negotiate with are full-time. Some of the mandarins around the Lege have seen twenty generations of corn-fed boys like you come and go, many of whom leave office without passing a bill worth its weight in toilet paper. Good luck!
They also know a lot more than you do. One of the peculiarities of the Lege is the stupefying ignorance of its participants. If there are, say, a thousand Capitol regulars—legislators, staffers, lobbyists, activists, journalists, and highly engaged citizens—then perhaps only a few dozen have a solid grasp on the core day-to-day business. For everybody else, the whole game is to find out what the core group knows. At the Lege, information is the coin of the realm—all the more valuable since so few possess it—and one reason the place is Valhalla for gossips and yentas and shit-talkers and bluffers.
Who are the lucky duckies? There are the obvious centers of power, the top decision-makers in the Lege: the House Speaker and his lieutenants, who advise the Speaker and chair key committees. The lieutenant governor, who runs the Senate, and his key allies. The governor’s legislative liaisons. Beyond those formally vested with power are fixtures of the Lege, such as political consiglieres, some well-sourced journalists, and—above all—top lobbyists. These are highly paid professionals. Some are as much a part of the institution as the brass hinges that grace the pink dome’s doors.
State lawmakers, on the other hand, are part-time politicians who receive salaries of $7,200 plus $221 a day during the legislative session. They are some of the worst-paid legislators in the country. And you get what you pay for.
There is an asymmetry of power attendant in this relationship: many lawmakers are, frankly, clueless—either because they’re neophytes or simply lazy—and they need the intel and guidance of éminences grises in the lobby, who are more than happy to help a fella out, if you know what we mean. Cooperation with special interests also has its financial rewards for poorly paid politicians. Campaign contributions, sure. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most state lawmakers have other lines of work—business and law and finance and such—that create great temptations for grabbing clients and contracts from the politically connected. Dear reader, some of these guys and gals don’t so much shy away from conflicts of interest as grab them with both hands. Whether it’s earning a “bonus” by “consulting” for a private-prison company, offering dubious services to school districts under the guise of a consultancy, or recruiting top lobbyists to invest in your bank, opportunity abounds to enrich yourself as a state legislator.
As they say in Mexico, a politician who is poor is a poor politician.
4. The business of the Lege is bidness
The headlines are all about red meat and culture-war squabbling and brawling (sometimes literally) among lawmakers most normies have never heard of. But the day-to-day workings of the Lege are all about money, money, money. As noted above, the only constitutional obligation of the state legislature is to pass a balanced budget, the details of which are worked up in an appropriations bill that runs to more than a thousand pages. (You can read it here.) A legislative cliché—a true and valuable one—is that the budget is a moral document. Whether in good times or in bad, the way the state divvies up dollars is a reflection of its values. (Congratulations, cynics, on guessing that children, poor folk, and feral hogs don’t fare so well.)
The budget-writing process—particularly if there is a large shortfall or a large surplus, as is the case this year—rightly gets lots of attention. But if the Lege is a three-ring circus and the budget show takes place under the main tent, don’t ignore what’s happening at the sideshows that rarely get reported on in depth, where a lot of money changes hands and corporate winners and losers are picked. The participants include more than 1,400 registered lobbyists—about 8 for each of the 181 state representatives and senators. And that’s only registered lobbyists. There are countless more figures working behind the scenes.
Texas may pride itself on a laissez-faire approach to the economy, but in fact, business interests regularly use the Lege to write the rules of the economy to their liking. Payday lenders spend extensively to maintain their ability to charge limitless interest rates. Specialty industries like the title insurance business secure the right to force consumers to purchase expensive, largely unnecessary products. Even Elon Musk is powerless in the face of entrenched interests; the world’s second-richest man has been unable to convince Texas politicians to let him circumvent car dealerships by selling Teslas directly to the public.
There’s a term for legislation benefiting a specific for-profit interest: “vendor bills.” Sometimes a vendor bill may even be written by the vendor. Example: a few sessions ago, a private-prison company was struggling to obtain a license to hold immigrant children in a for-profit lock-up. So the company wrote itself a permission slip and its lobbyist passed it to a willing lawmaker, who seemed mildly surprised that anyone would object. Other lawmakers simply do favors for the wealthy. In 2019, state representative Ryan Guillen, then a Democrat (now a Republican) representing one of the poorest districts in the state, stood to offer a stirring endorsement of a bill that was close to his heart: it cut the sales tax on multimillion-dollar yachts.
5. Bipartisanship is still possible in the Lege, but it ain’t easy
The U.S. Congress very famously has an aisle dividing Democrats from Republicans in both the House and the Senate. No such neat line of demarcation exists in the Texas Legislature. Instead, lawmakers from both parties are interspersed on the floors of both chambers. Members of the minority party—Democrats—chair some committees. And it’s not uncommon for members to collaborate on major legislation.
At its best, the Lege can rise above mindless partisanship and get things done. But that is increasingly uncommon these days. In the Senate, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has gotten tantalizingly close to assembling a perfect dictatorship, in which the 19 Republicans march in lockstep to Patrick’s orders and the 12 Democrats are kept pets. Until Patrick came along, the Senate regarded itself as the more temperate and deliberative bigger brother to the unruly House. That was always a bit of puffery, but whatever modicum of centrist comity once existed has now been scrubbed away. The upper chamber, under Patrick’s rule, has the grim efficiency of a Soviet satellite state’s parliament. The pocket squares and ridiculous self-importance are all that remain of a more moderate and independent-minded past.
Patrick has secured his lock on power in part by changing the Senate’s rules and customs. It’s a smart strategy. For the most part, the general public doesn’t follow, care, or understand the internal workings of legislative bodies. (Democrats, take note.) So when Patrick twice changed a key Senate rule requiring a supermajority to bring legislation to the floor, making it all but impossible for the Democratic caucus to block legislation, few outside the Capitol community took notice. But the results were immediate: Dan Patrick’s agenda sailed through the upper chamber with little meaningful resistance. Similarly, Patrick has all but ended the practice of appointing Democrats to powerful committees in his chamber. This session, he has appointed just one Democrat—forever-senator John Whitmire of Houston—to a chairmanship, though House Speaker Dade Phelan resisted calls from the far right to strip Democrats of all chair appointments. To borrow from a classic George Carlin line, the Senate is a big club, but they ain’t in it.