In the legislative process rules can decide whether a bill lives or dies – as they did this week with a high-profile bill attacking women’s health, Senate Bill 5. More broadly, however, legislative rules provide structure for a chaotic process and establish certain expectations for how the legislative process will proceed. In other words, the rules create a (somewhat) fair playing field within which all legislators must function.
When any lawmaker breaks the rules, his or her colleague may correct the violation with a parliamentary maneuver known as a “point of order.”
Traditionally, the rules have worked a bit differently in the Texas House and Senate. The House functions by written rules lawmakers adopt at the beginning of every session. While the Senate has written rules, the senators generally suspend them and act according to unwritten tradition. In both cases, legislators have a reasonable expectation of how their chamber will run.
However, this week’s debate over the women’s health bill demonstrated a disturbing disregard for the basic tenets of the legislative process. In the House, Speaker Joe Straus – generally known for being even-handed – and the Republican majority stubbornly and somewhat dismissively resisted numerous points of order.
For example, House members spent the first several hours on Sunday debating whether a rule that regulates when lawmakers are allowed to vote on legislation would prevent them from taking up a particular bill. Even though the rules clearly laid out the relevant procedures, the Speaker attempted to dismiss members’ objections, presumably to speed up the process.
In this particular case, the Republican majority was forced to adhere to the rules, albeit after prolonged resistance. At many other points throughout the debate on Sunday, the Republican majority ruled on points of order in a way that attempted to speed up the process. The author of the bill attacking women’s health, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, refused to speak at the microphone after making embarrassing gaffes, instead asking the chair to state her motions for her. When Democratic members pointed out that the rules require members to speak at the microphone for themselves, the Republican majority dismissed it.
Rather than act according to the very rules that they established at the beginning of session, House Republicans opted for political expediency.
These problems were even more blatant in the Senate. After the Senate failed to suspend the rules, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst upheld dubious points of order aimed at preventing Sen. Wendy Davis from blocking the controversial anti-women’s health bill.
Sen. Wendy Davis deftly used the rules to block the bill through the filibuster, a procedure in which a senator talks continuously about material relevant to the bill without sitting, eating, drinking, leaving the floor, or even leaning on anything. But the rules also provide for breaking the filibuster and proceeding normally if the lieutenant governor or the Senate sustains three points of order against the filibusterer.
At first, Sen. Davis spoke on the bill with little interruption. Yet after it became evident that she could last the 13 hours needed to successfully block the legislation, Senate Republicans began to bend the rules in their favor. Twice, they ruled that abortion-related topics were not relevant to a discussion focusing on abortion. A Republican senator called the other point of order after Sen. Ellis simply helped Sen. Davis adjust her back brace. All three points of order were sustained.
Ultimately, the bill’s fate hinged on whether senators had voted on the bill before or after the midnight deadline. Yet enforcing even this seemingly simple rule dragged on for several hours as the Senate met behind closed doors before finally announcing that the vote was invalid.
Removing politics from the legislative process is impossible. Even so, voters and legislators should be able to reasonably expect that the political process will function according to clearly defined rules. These rules check the majority party’s power by defining expectations up front, rather than allowing the majority party to do as it pleases under any circumstances.
Bending the rules when it is politically expedient undermines their very purpose and sets a dangerous precedent that such action is acceptable. The Texas legislature would do well to remember that.