Will the Last Democrat in the TX House Please Turn Off the Lights?
By Nick Ciggelakis
As the eyes of Texas and much of the country turn towards the political theatre unfolding in a half empty Texas House and elsewhere, as Texas Democrats post twitter selfies on Lear chartered jets to Washington D.C. to avoid voting on an election integrity bill, the questions turn to– how could this have been prevented? Was there even a need for a Texas special session in the first place?
The Texas Legislature is unique in that only meets biannually for 140 days from January to May every odd year. The only other time that the legislature meets is upon the call of the Governor who can authorize 30-day special sessions of the Texas Legislature.
With the legislature only existing for a short and finite period, there is often an urgency from grassroots activists on passing priority bills. However, the legislative process can be readily used to prevent this from happening.
During the first 30 days, Article III, Sec 5 of the Texas Constitution limits the legislature to “introduction of bills and resolutions, acting upon emergency appropriations, passing upon the confirmation of the recess appointees of the Governor and such emergency matters as may be submitted by the Governor in special messages to the Legislature” In the thirty days that follow this, “the various committees of each House shall hold hearings to consider all bills and resolutions and other matters then pending; and [passing] such emergency matters as may be submitted by the Governor.”
This essentially means that for 1/5th of the legislative session, a grassroots priority cannot receive a committee hearing and for 2/5ths of the session, a grassroots priority cannot be voted on unless the Governor asks for it to be considered.
Although the Texas Legislature first met on January 12th, the Governor did not list any emergency items for the legislature to consider until February 9th, (29 days into the legislative session) meaning that the Governor effectively instructed the legislature to do nothing during the thirty-day time-window that requires the legislature to exclusively hear and consider the Governor’s legislative priorities.
To the Governor’s credit, he did in-fact list election integrity as one of his initial emergency items. However, the House and Senate did not vote on any legislation in the month of February. In fact, the Texas House did not pass a single bill out of its chamber until March 25th (73 days into the legislative session.)
With the House Rules requiring it to pass all bills originating from the House by May 14th (123rd day) and by the Senate on May 26th (135th Day), this creates an intentional logjam in which legislators will filibuster and raise procedural motions in the days leading up to these deadlines in order to slow the passage of bills and to require legislators to horse trade in cloak rooms in order to ensure that their bills stand a chance for a vote.
By May 30th (the 139th day), the House and Senate are required to concur to the passage of the House and Senate Amendments or to the passage of the conference committee version of a bill. Again, giving one last opportunity for legislators to filibuster and kill grassroots priorities.
Here, the Election Integrity bill that was known as SB 7 did not pass its Conference Committee until May 29th. This created a situation where the Democrats knew that if they simply left the chamber when the Texas House attempted to take up SB 7 on May 30th, the Speaker could not compel their return in time to pass the bill. They walked out, and it worked! No Election Integrity bill was passed in Texas during the general session of 2021.
Governor Abbott and other Republicans acted shocked at the Democrats killing SB7 in this way. But they should not be. In 2017, the Texas House Freedom Caucus caused a special session in by successfully filibustered one of the few bills that the legislature is required to pass each session. This was due to House leadership waiting until the very last possible day to consider it.
So, as this 2021 Special Session approached, the question turned to how do Republicans stop the Democrats from walking out a second time and killing the Election Integrity bill? First, they tried to water down the bill. Then they added pro education union bills to the special session agenda. But ultimately, Democrats knew that if they leave the state, they are outside Texas jurisdiction and can once again run out the clock.
Texans now must endure a game of brinkmanship. The Governor could theoretically call an infinite number of special sessions until his agenda is passed. Republican leadership can attempt to make further concessions to appeal to moderate democrats or they can attempt to wait patiently for the Democrats to become fatigued from their opulent $189 a night stay at the Washington Plaza Hotel.
Ultimately, regardless of the outcome of the Election Integrity bill, the victims are not the Republican House who have to sit and do nothing. The victims are the Texans who have to endure elected officials who by and large have no interest in representing the needs of the people.
The lack of quorum also prevents the consideration of every other agenda item that was listed in Governor Abbott’s special session agenda. This means that the Texas House cannot even consider issues such as property tax relief in a state in which property taxes have increased as much as 45.3% to 68.5% in a seven year span for some residents living in the DFW Metroplex.
The events that are occurring in Texans should be a lesson for Arkansas legislators as to how they conduct themselves during their legislative session. Arkansas legislators should prioritize grassroots priorities before they consider crony legislation. Kicking the can down the road, can often have harsh and significant unintended consequences.
*Mr. Ciggelakis is a second-year law student at the University of Arkansas. Prior to attending UA, Nick attended Texas A&M and served on the officer board of the Young Conservatives of Texas; a non-partisan conservative youth organization that has been fighting for conservative values for more than 40 years in the Lone Star State. This summer he is enjoying a public interest clerkship in Austin, TX.