The first two weeks of the 84th Legislative session were marked by two rare and historic votes within each chamber.
In the lower chamber the race for Speaker of the House proved to be much ado about nothing. Complete with an “unruly mob” of Tea Party activists in the gallery and with all the Representatives’ family members present (as is tradition on the first day), the Texas House of Representatives took a record vote electing Speaker Joe Straus for his 4th session on the Speaker’s dais. Straus has officially outlasted his predecessor Dean Tom Craddick by one session now, and has now officially survived a tea party challenge. The recorded vote was the first of its kind in over 39 years — and although it was reported as a “contested Speakers race,” in the end there was no real contest with a vote of 127-19 votes securely re-electing Straus. So for now, traditional Republican conservatives reign supreme the Texas House.
The second historic vote of this session occurred just last week in the upper chamber – The Texas State Senate – formerly known as the most deliberative body in the world.
The vote of course was to destroy the already dying golden rule of the Senate known as the 2/3rds rule. Section 5.13 of the Senate rules basically stated that no bill will even be able to come to the Senate floor for a vote without 2/3rds of the members agreeing to debate it. That number is now 3/5th, conveniently taking the number Senators needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote from 21 to 19. With 11 Democrats in the Senate this new 3/5th rule avoids any approval needed from Senate Democrats to agree to debate a bill. Senator Lucio (D-Brownsville) was the only Democrat to vote for the new rule change, and Senator Estes (R-Wichita Falls) was counted as Present Not Voting noting that he could not vote for the rule change because he was concerned (and rightfully so) about how this change would affect his rural district.
Republican Tea Party leaders like Dan Patrick seem to be oblivious to the fact that they are following the most dysfunctional and unpopular legislative body in our country’s history – today’s United States Senate. It won’t be long before filibusters and partisan bickering become commonplace in the Texas Senate — much like it was during the special session last summer during Davis’s filibuster, when the 2/3rds rule was chunked only temporarily at that time. Sadly collegiality of the Senate has reached a bygone era — and with that a lot of institutional memory will be wasted. When former Lt. Governor Dewhurst came to power only 3 current Senate Republicans were in the Senate: Fraser, Nelson, Estes. There are 7 Senate Democrats who fit that same description: Zaffirini, Whitmire, West, Van de Putte, Lucio, Hinojosa, and Ellis — and only 2 Senators from each of these categories are Chairman of committees: Fraser, Nelson, Whitmire, and Lucio.
So instead of pouring tea (legislation) into the “senatorial saucer” to cool it, as George Washington is famously quoted, it’s just a piping hot tea party in the upper chamber here in Texas.
The end of last week also marked Senate Committee assignments where again institutional memory will be nothing more than simply that. Democratic Senators Zaffirini, West, Van de Putte, and Ellis all lost their chairmanships. The only bright spot is that Whitmire kept his chairmanship of the Criminal Justice Committee, and Hinojosa stayed as Vice Chair on Senate Finance.
The beginning of this session also marked an inauguration of little consequence but lots of barbecue, and a sound policy appointment from Governor Abbott to the UT System Board of Regents. This represents a marked change from Aggie yell leader Rick Perry, and is no real surprise given that Abbott is a University of Texas alumnus.
With all this focus on the Senate and their hierarchy of committee assignments and new rules in place, look for House Committee assignments in the coming weeks.
Look for Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) to keep his Chairmanship of Calendars — the equivalent of the 2/3rds rule in the House — setting the schedule for the what bills will make it to the House floor and what don’t. With Dan Patrick firmly in control of the Senate, the House is now the last battlefield between the Tea Party and traditional Republicans. It will be interesting to see how each chamber manages itself throughout this session — and if new Governor Greg Abbott ever decides to weigh in.
Even with the Tea Party populating itself in the capitol, plenty of the old Republican rule is still firmly in place. Yet this new legislative session poses more questions than ever before. How will Dan Patrick lead the Senate? What kind of Governor will Abbott be throughout session? Can Straus manage another term as Speaker? And simply from a policy perspective of having roads, water, schools, and a growing debt to pay for, it will be interesting to see exactly how it will get much worse.
I’ll end with the delightful tone of Donald Rumsfeld:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
See y’all next week.