So long, Senate floor. For as long as anybody can remember, credentialed members of the Texas press corps have sat at a long rectangular table at the front left of the upper chamber, free to observe proceedings, talk shop, and occasionally grab interviews with lawmakers and staffers. This was an unusual privilege: many state legislatures don’t allow press on the floor, and of course Congress doesn’t. In one small way, the Texas Lege, a pretty opaque and parochial institution, was a little more transparent than its counterparts.
This year, when reporters received their Senate credentials, they came absent the “floor rules” reporters are supposed to abide by—in past sessions identical to the House floor rules. On Friday, the Secretary of the Senate clarified why that was: the press would not be allowed on the floor. Reporters could sit in the gallery with everyone else.
This restriction was also in place last session. In 2021, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate broke with tradition and kicked the press out as one of many new rules to limit human interaction in the Capitol. That was understandable, although the antiviral cocoon instituted to protect Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the chamber, was a little amusing, given that he said on TV shortly after the pandemic started that old folks elsewhere might have to sacrifice their lives to keep the economy humming. It was hard not to suspect that the press would never be back on the floor, though.
How big a deal is the restriction on access, really? Democracy may die in darkness, as the Washington Post has it, but there hasn’t been much light at the Lege for a long time running. Babysitting the press table in the Senate, in particular, has always been seen as less preferable to the equivalent duty in the House, which is more rambunctious and where lawmakers actually like to chat. The interesting discussions in the Senate these days mainly happen behind closed doors. And reporters may, in fact, be better served by hanging around the gallery, where lobbyists and other interested parties are practicing pagan magicks through most of the session—though many may choose to simply watch it from home instead.
But the closing of the Senate floor does have significance as another installment in a long process by which Texas politicians—overwhelmingly Republican ones, with a few Democrats in the mix—have withdrawn from engagement with the media. Patrick, who was a shock jock right-wing radio host prior to running for office, is skilled at manipulating the media without offering it much in return. Consider that the headlining campaign event of Patrick’s third bid to lead the Senate, an eight-week-long bus tour of rural Texas, was essentially closed to the public: dates and locations of events were not disclosed to either voters or the media. Patrick spoke to handpicked crowds and posted limited excerpts on social media. Several big-ticket items in front of the Lege this session, foremost Patrick’s school voucher push, have large implications for rural Texas. It would have been nice to hear what he told those crowds, and what questions he was asked. But very little of it is on the record.
Patrick is merely continuing a decades-long trend of Texas public officials pulling back from the press. There is a level of paranoia and mistrust and sometimes hatred of reporters in Texas that is continually surprising. In the mid-2010s, I was told by some state agency employees that their elected boss kept a white-noise machine in his office to foil potential listening devices left, perhaps, by reporters. Around the same time, a lobbyist told me, another had visitors to his office sign forms indicating they were not closeted journalists, nor were they acting on behalf of any. For portions of the last eight years, representatives in Governor Greg Abbott’s office would not even speak to the Texas Tribune, the publication that does the most comprehensive coverage of state government.
Conservatives like to say the media brought this on themselves—that reporters are too left-wing and have forfeited their relevance and audience and claim to authority. But there are so many reasons why the reporting relationship at the Legislature has changed since the time of the great Paul Burka, longtime chronicler of the institution for this magazine. Burka was one of the greatest political writers the state—maybe the country—ever produced. But the way he did his work can’t be done today.
Burka was in the club, which is partly why he could speak so authoritatively and collect so much insider gossip. He came from the same social circle as many lawmakers. He went to Rice and the University of Texas law school with future sources. Politics was less ideological; lawmakers of all stripes were desperate to be highlighted, to see their names in print. An unwise remark made to Burka might show up in an issue of Texas Monthly months down the road and be regretted, but its impact would be limited by the reach of the print magazine.
Today journalists have changed, and so have lawmakers. The gulfs between the racial, class, and educational backgrounds of journalists and the officials they cover are wider than they used to be. The good-old-boy ethos that runs the state is still strong, and some lawmakers and journalists do socialize, but the relationship is vastly different than it used to be. With that goes opportunities to build trust. Meanwhile, politicians now operate in a world that is media-saturated. They’re always “on,” and always on guard. On social media, they have the opportunity to present exactly the versions of themselves they want to project. Patrick’s road trip was so Instagram-ready, so carefully choreographed, that you half expected him to post a story of sunrise meditation in Outdoor Voices yoga pants. When someone else offers a different interpretation, politicians take it as a violation.
Ultimately, the closer relationship lawmakers had with journalists in the past held fast because it benefited both. As a lawmaker, if you think your position on a matter is likely to win substantial support in a room of normal Texans, it benefits you to talk to a reporter, even a hostile one. They may write that you’re holding up school lunches for needy children—but some Texans will read the article and find your concern about taxpayer dollars compelling. But if you’re afraid of how your position will be received by those normal folks, it’s best to hide your beliefs and intentions. The business of the Lege today is often doing things that most Texans don’t want, things that poll poorly—such as fully banning abortion, which about 15 percent of Texans say they agree with, or instituting open and unlicensed handgun carry, which less than 40 percent support. In truth, it’s surprising that Patrick is even letting reporters stay in the gallery.
My signature memory of the Senate press table speaks, perhaps, to how frivolous access could be. Back in the days of the dinosaurs and David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor through 2014, the Senate was kept at a frigid temperature. Dewhurst was said to sweat easily—or perhaps, we thought, he was a lizard. Texas Monthly alum Sonia Smith tweeted that she was jealous of state senator Donna Campbell, who brought a Snuggie for warmth. A few minutes later out came Dewhurst, all smiles, bringing a blanket to Smith. That relationship, and that proximity, sometimes paid off in more substantial ways. A few months later, journalists got to be on the floor for the Wendy Davis filibuster, reporting details of that long day from up close. The accounts we have of what happened that night, one of the most dramatic in the Senate in living memory, would be less substantial if the press had had to watch it on the livestream or from the gallery with everyone else.
I wouldn’t ask you to pour one out for the Senate press table. But as a citizen of Texas, you are losing something more broadly—something you’ve been losing for some time, and which will be very difficult to get back. The Legislature is a vital institution in your life. It is also comically opaque and inscrutable. The press corps’ ability to convey what life in the Lege is like has sunk from where it was even a decade ago. And that’s the way a lot of politicians want it.
Correction 1/12/23: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that credentialed lobbyists are allowed on the Senate floor. They are not.