Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.
Veritable tens of Texans dotted the streets of downtown Austin for Tuesday’s Inauguration Day parade, with handfuls of people clamoring to get a look at the state’s newly sworn-in governor and lieutenant governor, Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick.
Perhaps the low turnout was, as venerable soon-to-retire elder statesman of Texas political journalism Paul Burka suggested, due to the fact that nobody in Texas voted, “So why should anyone expect people to attend the parade?” Sure, possibly. The organizers of the inaugural festivities did try to lure in onlookers with $10 plates of barbecue, but in blue Austin, the lines were probably always going to be longer for Franklin and Mueller than for Abbott and Patrick.
With the swearing-in festivities out of the way—including an inaugural ball set from Tennessee’s own Lady Antebellum, owing to the fact that there’s not, apparently, a red dirt country band that’s red enough for Dan Patrick—our new Lt. Governor kicked off his first day in office by spending a couple of hours dismantling a decades-old bipartisan legislative tradition beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike, once hailed as the single greatest marker of the Texas senate’s reputation for being the most careful and deliberative state legislative body in the country.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I’m speaking, of course, of the “two-thirds rule,” the nearly 70-year-old procedural maneuver that prevents a dominant political party from steamrolling its own agenda through the lege. The rule has, classically, required a two-thirds senate majority—and thereby some semblance of a bipartisan consensus—to bring any bill to the floor, and was originally conceived when (believe it!) Texas was a state dominated by Democrats, as a nod to the Republican minority.
Ditching a tradition this aged and venerated is a funny kind of conservatism, but never say I pretended to know what goes on in Dan Patrick’s head. Anyway, the new rule will require merely a three-fifths majority to bring new legislation to the floor, so a senator will now need 19, rather than 21, votes of support. That means that Texas’ 11 Democrat senators, who used to be able to block bills with a party-line vote alone, will need to coax a couple of their GOP colleagues over to their side. Perhaps noted Democratic flip-flopper Sen. Eddie Lucio will now enjoy some bipartisan company when casting his predictably unpredictable votes.
Arguing against the alteration, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez said, “This rule change means we don’t have to strive for consensus, for compromise.” He compared it to a kind of back-door way into racist gerrymandering, a la Texas’ Republican redistricting scandal and attendant voter ID law. Other lawmakers noted that the two-thirds rule has prompted senators from urban and rural districts—not just red and blue ones, because in Texas urban hardly always means “blue,” and “rural” isn’t a red guarantee—to seek compromise.
As state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) pointed out, Texas Republicans have pretty much always been able to do or pass anything they’ve wanted—they seemed to find ways around the two-thirds rule when it came to gerrymandering and abortion, for example—so the gutting of the rule seemed like a particularly low, especially unnecessary blow to a party that, after November’s hefty Davis-Van de Putte loss, wasn’t exactly posing a significant threat to Republican rule.
And the rule change could, potentially, come back to bite the more moderate members of the Texas GOP, though expecting a group of people who don’t believe in climate change to plan ahead for this kind of thing might be asking a bit much. See, the two-thirds rule made it more difficult to bring highly partisan legislation to the floor, allowing some Republicans to demure from taking public stances on potentially controversial bills. Now, with a lower bar to clear, Dan Patrick can force middling members of his party to take his way or—given the extreme-right predilections of the Texas primary voter—the highway. Republicans who are forced to take a moderate stand on issues like same-sex marriage or charter schools can more easily be challenged by Tea Party-style politicians, who can cite their less conservative voting records as reasons for their ouster.
But after a couple of hours of debate, the inevitable inevitably passed (with, of course, the help of the aforementioned Sen. Lucio, the sole “D” to flop over the “R” line to vote for the rule change): The Texas Senate is now running on the three-fifths rule, and Dan Patrick took the opportunity to
graciously and quietly celebrate the successful end of his years-long crusade against bipartisanship gloat so, so hard, noting that the rule change will help him “deliver a conservative agenda.”
As an extra-red raspberry to Texas Democrats, Patrick also reduced the number of senate committees from 18 to 14, scratching three committees previously headed by his D-leaning colleagues and one formerly headed by deposed East Texan state Sen. Bob Deuell, the anti-choice Republican doctor who was out-anti-choiced by Bob Hall last May.
Speaking of East Texas and anti-choice legislators: Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), who counts among his interests keeping gay kids out of the Boy Scouts and defunding Obamacare, filed a bill that would create a mound of paperwork not only for Texas’ remaining few abortion providers, but for the bureaucrats at the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), a department so inefficiently organized and overburdened that it is already in the process of receiving a complete top-to-toe overhaul. Any Texas doctor who provides abortion care must currently file annual reports on the procedures they perform as part of a non-statutory requirement enacted at the behest of Rep. Bill Zedler back in 2012; Schaefer’s bill would mandate monthly submissions instead of annual ones, create a criminal penalty for failing to file them, and require DSHS to create an attendant “secure electronic reporting system” for them.
Come to think of it, I think I know a Texas tech security firm that might be looking for some new contracts later this year, so maybe it’ll all work out.