Not long after the gavel first brought the 81st session of the Texas Senate to order, a vigorous debate on the rules began. A Republican Senator from Houston, Dan Patrick, introduced a special resolution to change the long-standing Senate rules from a two-thirds majority rule to three-fifths, in relation to an already contentious issue—voter identification.
Patrick’s proposal, co-authored by Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), rubbed both Democrats and some Republicans the wrong way. The two-thirds majority rule has been the foundation of parliamentary procedure for centuries. The rule encourages bipartisan cooperation to craft legislation before bringing it up for a vote on the floor.
It wasn’t very surprising that the proposal quickly became more than a debate about requiring a picture ID when voting, or what constitutes voter fraud—it became about the rules. Patrick has been a vocal advocate of changing the rules in accordance with the US Senate, which is a three-fifths majority.
“I simply believe that the 21-vote rule is an acronym for a two-party Senate,” Patrick said. “It’s too easy to sidestep the debate that is needed on tough issues. If the minority refuses to yield whatsoever on an issue, than it’s going to be the responsibility of those nineteen [senators] in the majority to push the legislation through.”
Although two votes may seem mathematically insignificant, an issue would have to generate sixty percent support from the floor, which is significant but not too big of a barrier. It may benefit the minority for the purposes of bringing tough bills on the floor. Instead of nine votes, a requirement of seven would allow more legislation to be discussed.
Patrick contends that the argument on voter ID yielded to what he called “a necessary debate” that many bills don’t receive. Patrick has pushed for a permanent switch to the three-fifths rule, and considers this just the first step in accomplishing that goal.
“Two years ago I had no support,” Patrick said. This year…we changed the rule.”
Although the majority of Patrick’s colleagues say they’re against a permanent change to the rules, they voted to change to three-fifths on this particular issue, including Republican Senator Bob Deuell of Dallas. “The voter ID is not a bill that lends itself to moving parts,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with suspending the rules on something like that.”
Senator John Carona, also of Dallas, was the sole Republican to vote against the three-fifths rule. “We have a proven history that two-thirds rule works, and changing right now seems a bit opportunistic.” Carona added that the rules change should not have been made for what he considers political purposes.
“I respect my Republican colleagues,” Carona continued. “I think it was a poor decision on their part to pass this. But they are going to regret the political pressure they’ll be under in the sessions to follow.”
Senator Royce West (D-Dallas), who voted against the proposal, said that his problem with the rules change was that the two-thirds rule “forces compromise,” while the three-fifths rule does not. West pointed to other intractable issues, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and tuition deregulation, that had not received special treatment.
“Sometimes a gridlock is good, because it means that an issue isn’t right for consideration,” West said. “And that’s good for what’s been the position of this body.”