COMMENTARY: Bypassing Senate rules to push bills through


Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent out a news release last week bragging about the speed that the Texas Senate passed a series of bills for his conservative agenda during this special legislative session. About the only thing he got right, however, was that a lot of bills passed quickly. From the content of most of the bills themselves to the process by which they were passed, the more appropriate terms are “reactionary,” “reckless,” or “ramming legislation down people’s throats by any means necessary.”

Last week, the Texas Senate, which once prided itself on being known as a great deliberative body, ignored long-standing rules, disregarded the minority opinion, and threw itself into passing divisive primary election fodder, sacrificing good public policy and the democratic process.

We are there to represent all Texans, not just a segment of primary voters of one political party or the other. History shows that when we can not find compromise, then that usually means the proposal is likely bad for Texas.

Senate rules exist to foster dialogue, compromise, and consensus. But that doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

The bills that passed July 25-26 included the anti-LGBTQ, anti-business “bathroom bill,” and proposals to harass doctors who perform abortions and their patients, divert public school funding to private schools through a voucher scheme, and curtail the ability of cities and counties to set local priorities (although some small cities and counties were exempted to secure needed rural Republican votes.)

The single biggest change illustrating this was a rules change. Previously, it took a two-thirds vote of the Senate to bring a bill to the floor. That forced consensus and compromise that protected the rights of senators in the minority, typically those from rural areas, and it worked for generations of Texans. In 2015, the two-thirds rule was changed to three-fifths, and with 20 of 31 votes, the Republican majority can pass legislation without any input from the minority.

On the first day of this Special Session, the Senate dispensed with another rule meant to ensure adequate time to prepare for bills scheduled to be heard — Senate Rule 11.19, the “tag” rule. This rule affords any member of the Senate a right to request at least 48 hours written notice of the time and place set for a public hearing on a specific bill.

Instead of following our Senate rules, which provide order and transparency of our proceedings, the Senate voted 20-11, along party lines, to retroactively suspend the rule after I placed a tag on the sunset bill. The tag rule has been suspended a handful of times in the past, but always before a senator placed a tag on a bill. However, no one in the Senate can remember or knows of an instance when the tag rule was suspended retroactively. It happened again, around 1 a.m. on July 27, when the Senate retroactively overruled 11 tags that I placed on bills that were set to be heard last Friday morning.

The point of those tags was to give senators and the public time to study the bills before committee hearings. Notably, the text of several bills wasn’t even available to the public when these committee hearings were scheduled. In legislation, every word and every line matter, especially when some bills, such as the tax rollback bill, can be 100 pages. Holding hearings where public input is limited and then voting within a few days of their introduction undermines major policy decisions.

This was evident during committee hearings. Testimony was limited to people who signed up one hour before or three hours after the hearings began. Because of the condensed period between bill referral and the hearings, both senators and the public were often confused about what was actually in the bills being discussed. In some cases, senators actually admitted the bills were poorly drafted but they were rushing to get them out. Even when the bills were debated on the floor, nearly all of the amendments proposed were summarily rejected.

What the Senate did in the first nine days is not “conservative.”

The conservative thing would be to respect long-standing Senate rules and the Texas Constitution. The conservative thing would be to pass the bills we had to, the Sunset bills, and leave further lawmaking until the next regular session in 2019. If we are going to stay and spend considerable taxpayer dollars, the conservative thing to do would be to address issues that truly affect the lives of Texans, like funding public schools.

Texans have made their voices heard, even with the limited opportunity allowed by Senate leadership. The public must continue to do so as the action shifts over to the Texas House, where the voices of all Texans that the Senate refused to listen to must be heard.