The filibuster returns to Texas

This week’s filibuster by Wendy Davis brought a lot of attention to the use of the filibuster to kill a bill in the Texas Senate.

It’s always nice for political scientists when the rest of civilization suddenly notice that those rules and procedures we study actually matter. Our political system is complicated and a lot of people had to sort out what a filibuster was and how they felt about it. [The Texas Tribune has a short article explaining the basics of filibusters.]

Filibusters are a great opportunity to think about representative democracy. We often talk about having a “democracy” but we actually have a republic or representative democracy. Built into that are a number of ways of slowing down government action in order to protect people from the wishes of a minority. The authors of the U.S. Constitution were trying to empower the people while at the same time limiting their power. This is a kind of contradiction built into the U.S. Constitution by the founders who recognized that democracy was an untested idea and remained unsure about the wisdom of the masses.

We  talk about our system of representative democracy but filibusters are when it gets real and we have to face the conflict between our basic assumption that the majority rules and all the hurdles to legislation built into our system. And it’s hard to find an institution with more hurdles than the Texas Senate. You usually need two-thirds of the senators, good luck, and good karma to get something through the Texas Senate.

Texans generally accept all those hurdles in the Texas Senate as part of the idea of limited government because they feel that the less that gets done in the legislature the less the citizens of Texas are bothered by their government. Of course, how much they enjoy it at any given moment may vary with which legislation died.

What happens if more people filibuster?

A filibuster over an issue like abortion was inevitable. Both sides care deeply about the issue will to do whatever it takes to advance their cause. I’m surprised we don’t see  more of these delay tactics. After all, filibusters have become a common feature of the U.S. Senate where they’re used routinely and enthusiastically to block major and minor legislation as well as appointments. We haven’t seen much of this in Texas. However, in 1977 Senator Bill Meier filibustered for 43 hour to block a provision in a bill which “prevented public inspection of the records of the Industrial Accident Board.” That doesn’t seem like the issue most likely to inspire a record filibuster.

As Davis demonstrated last night, filibustering is especially effective in Texas where we have legal limits the length of the session. Congress can stay in session and try to wear a filibuster down. A part-time legislature is a much easier target.

Expect to see more filibusters in the future. Not only did Davis kill the bill (at least for this special session), she also held center stage in Texas politics. Outnumbered, Davis could cast herself as a hero standing up for the rights of women. Others will likely want to champion their cause in a similar way. Everyone in the Texas legislature is in the minority on some issue. Everyone wants to be the champion of an issue.

The poor turnout in the state’s primaries combined with Texans habit of straight-ticket voting means that winning the support of a narrow base is central to success in Texas elections.

It’s ironic that this special session was about redistricting since the partisan redistricting found in Texas and many other states contributes to the politics that makes a filibuster like yesterday’s so appealing. When we design the districts to please the parties, we create districts where there’s little competition after the primary. If the primary is the only real competition with people participating winning office is about winning the hearts of a narrow group of party loyalists–just the kind of people who love filibusters.

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A redistricting surprise?

Matt Mackowiak at Must Read Texas has raised an interesting sidelight that results from the fact that Texas state senators are elected to “staggered” four-year terms with about half being elected every two years. This means that in 2014 about half of our state senators should be up for reelection while the other half will not be up for reelection until 2016.

Because we redrew the maps for the senate and other offices back in 2011, all of these senators were elected to districts that were officially new since they were created in 2011. These districts may look largely like the old districts, but redistricting mean that these districts were born again and new and every senate seat was up for election in 2012.

So, how do we get to staggered senate elections with about half every two years? Back in January, Texas senators drew lots to determine whether their new term would be two or four years (“Senators Draw Lots to Determine Terms“). Sixteen senators won the right to serve the deluxe 4-year term with the rest got a two-year term and reelection in 2014.

This is important to senators for a couple of reasons.

First, elected officials prefer running for office as infrequently as possible. If you’re already in office an election is just a chance to get knocked out of office. Also, campaigns are very expensive and time-consuming. If you have won the privilege of serving a four-year term you’re not going to be very interested in drawing lots again and having to run for reelection in two years. On the other hand, those senators currently set to serve only two years this term are ready to toss the dice again.

There’s a second issue: seeking statewide office. In Texas you can not be on the ballot for two different offices (a special law was passed to allow LBJ to run for vice president and US Senator–but that’s a different level of the game). That means that any senator up for reelection in 2014 has to choose between running for statewide office or seeking reelection to their senate seat.  Senators who drew four-year terms back in January can run for statewide office in 2014 with the knowledge that they can keep their seat in the Senate while they campaign for another office. Currently, two Republican senators (Glenn Hegar, Katy and Tommy Williams, The Woodlands) are thinking about runs for statewide office. Those statewide campaigns might look very different for Hegar and Williams if Senate were to have to draw lots again and they drew two-year terms.

Of course, there’s the possibility that the Senate could exempt themselves from this process. Sixteen senators did “win” the right to a four-year term, but 15 “lost” that lottery and were left with the consolation prize of an initial two-year term. It adds an interesting dimension to the redistricting session.