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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