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.


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.

Interactive Map: Senate Committees by Member Districts | The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune has put together an Interactive Map of Senate Committees by Member Districts. You can see what areas are represented on Senate Committees.

Geographic representation on Senate Higher Education Committee

Geographic representation on Senate Higher Education Committee

The influence that a member of the Senate has may impact how well an area does on the issues under the committee’s jurisdiction. It will be interesting to see if these maps tell the story of who gets what during this session.

Crossing the great divide

Nick Anderson’s cartoon pretty effectively sums up the competition driving Texas politics. Republicans are fighting frantically among themselves for control of Texas government–even though they’re headed down the same road.

The Two Party System

The division in Republic party’s state convention (“Convention shows GOP’s fractured unity “) is only the latest evidence that factionalism is the dominant theme of American politics. Republican Bryan Hughes filed for Speaker, launching another challenge to House Speaker Joe Straus. I’ve argued before that this is largely a matter of political muscle flexing. Too many people care more about the perception of power than making progress. It reminds me of watch children fight over who gets to ride in the front seat. Someone always refuses to enjoy where they’re going because they didn’t get to sit exactly where they wanted.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the Texas GOP. The failed recall effort in Wisconsin illustrates that unions and other liberal groups can be every bit as disruptive and groups within the conservative coalition. The Democrats were very good about dividing up in the 1960s and 1970s when the anti-war purists attempted to purge the party of others. People were physically thrown out of caucus meetings. During this time the labor unions, civil right groups, and anti-war forces divided the Democratic party and helped contribute to the rise of the GOP. Today’s Republican politics looks very much like the petty squabbling of those Democrats–and that should be enough to alarm Republicans.

Wearing blindersThe Citizens United case and other changes in campaign finance have only encouraged individual corporations or labor unions to go their own way and advocate for themselves more narrowly. Today, individual political action committees, corporation, or other narrow interests are more free to work individually and pursue their own self-interest without working with others. Special interest donors and self-interested voters see no need to compromise with others since the campaign allowed them to work alone. Campaigning today provides fewer opportunities for people with similar interests to sit down, discuss their differences, and realize that these other views have some legitimacy. The people who think the Speaker Straus or Dewhurst are closet Democrats or RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) are demonstrating what happens when you never take off your political blinders.

This only works until representatives elected by these narrow interests get together in the Legislature and begin to craft public policy. Thus, the first time many constituencies see a need to compromise is when the work has moved to the legislature. At that point, it is easy to blame the legislator’s integrity or bargaining skills when you don’t get exactly what you want. Unfortunately for the narrow-minded fringes in politics, our political system demands compromise. The US Constitution is itself a compromise (think about the integrity behind the three-fifth compromise) and failing to understand that sets you up for a lifetime of disappointment. You’re not getting exactly what you want because that’s what James Madison and the rest of the founders embedded in the Constitution.

The problem is compounded by a lack of understanding of the consequences of public policy. For example, many groups demanded more accountability and less bureaucracy even though accountability creates bureaucracy. The “small government” advocates today calling for the end of state-mandated high-stakes testing in public schools represent the same interests that created those tests originally (and continue to push new forms of “accountability”).

The fact that so many Republicans felt that the Legislature just wasn’t conservative enough despite the huge Republican majority is a bigger indictment of voters’ expectation than legislators’ performance. It’s silly to believe that Rick Perry and the huge Republican majority were not as conservative enough to represent Texas and that many more cuts in government programs could be made. Such complaining may be good fun at parties and occasionally therapeutic, but voters need to understand that many of their expectations are not realistic.

Unfortunately, Texas and the nation lacks leaders brave enough to talk honestly with people about the tough decisions. Politicians don’t like telling people to grow up because it costs them votes and contributions.

The case for annual legislative sessions

A story in the Austin-American Statesman, made me think about the problems that occur when our legislature gets together every two years with a regular session that only lasts 140 days. Senator Mike Jackson is asking the Governor to veto legislation that the Senator amended because of problems with the wording. Jackson’s amendment would have changed the law so that the Texas Ethics Commission would have to dismiss complaints against candidates who said that they made good faith mistakes and corrected them 14 days. This protection again punishment was so broadly constructed that it would have prevented the Ethics Commission from punishing candidates who broke election law any time they said it was an honest mistake.

Clearly, this legislation was not read closely during the session–even by its sponsor. Legislators were so anxious to protect themselves from ethics violations that they did not leave a credible shell of the law.

It’s one of those little problems you get from the frenzy of activity at the end of each legislative session as so many bills compete for the attention of legislators with very little time. There is lots of work to do and not much time to do it. It’s the time of the year when the ratio of legislation to thinking becomes dangerously high. That is what happens when you have a legislature that meets for 140 days every two years.

Earlier this year the Texas Tribune had a story pointing out that Texas is one of the few states clinging to biennial legislative sessions. Starting this year, only Montana, North Dakota and Nevada will join Texas in only letting our legislators meet every two years. Advocates of retaining biennial sessions would tell us that we are just so much smarter than 46 other states. However, when you see the rest of the country heading in the other direction, you should at least consider the possibility that they have some good reasons.

You may not see a lot of public support for this (although some legislators will admit in private that it’s a needed reform) because it’s not popular among voter with knee-jerk aversion to longer sessions.

Very few people actually suggest that the Texas Legislature is a model of good government. In fact, I haven’t heard anyone offer up the Texas Legislature as a model for anything. For example, the “tea party” conservatives are very unhappy with Texas government despite the fact that conservatives been in control for years. Maybe it’s not the old conservatives. Maybe it’s the old biennial system.

Many people assume that shorter legislative sessions means less government. That only works part of the time and the idea that less supervision over government by elected officials will produce better government is naive. Again, if that was true people would not be insisting that state government did not have a problem with waste. The Legislature’s work must be done by May 30. There’s not much time for close examination of government programs or executive branch appointees in those 140 days.

Also, a part-time legislature generates part-time staff. A little more expertise might have nipped this problem in the bud. Who is full-time in Austin? The media and interest groups. So, if the Austin-American Statesman and Texans for Public Justice didn’t catch this…

Part-time legislators help empower full-time lobbyists. Legislative staff will tell you that they rely heavily on the information and effort provided by special interests and their lobbyists. The rush of the legislative session only facilitates lobbyists who have arguments ready and bills drafted that reflect the needs of their clients. It’s the legislators playing catch-up.

There is the notion that less time in session means less time for bad decisions. However, bad decisions generally take less time than good decisions. Conservatives and liberals have seen some of their favorite bills die for lack of attention this session. Good legislation takes time, whether you want to cut government or expand government.

Texas is one of the most rapidly changing states in the nation. The state is already saddled with a state constitution that needs to be updated. We need some way to play catch up.

Despite this, the philosophy of Texans seems to be: “Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it.”

Congressional redistricting, Texas style

One of the biggest challenges to being an optimistic professor teaching Texas politics comes with redistricting. I spend a lot of time trying to convince students that politicians are often guided more by principle than partisanship.

And then redistricting comes along.

The initial redistricting proposal from the Texas legislature is pretty ugly. Travis county is divided into 5 different districts. One district (10) ranges from west Austin to western Harris county. Meanwhile, District 36 (below) is  a horseshoe-shaped mess that loops up from northwestern Houston, up and over Lufkin, and then diving back down to snare part of Orange county on the Louisiana border.

The oddly-shaped 36th district

Meanwhile, no incumbents were paired off against each other. Clearly, legislators have decided they care much more about representing partisan interests than the needs of the communities they represent.

Rusty from Squidbillies


Now that I look at it, District 36 is more mullet-shaped than horseshoe-shaped. Am I the only one who thinks that it is a bad for your legislative districts look like characters from Squidbillies?

Pistol Packin’ Politicians

My long-standing policy of defending legislators is being tested by the Texas Legislature’s efforts to allow legislators and state-wide elected officials to carry concealed weapons to places where ordinary citizen with concealed carry permits cannot: bars, hospitals, churches, amusement parks, or correctional facilities. I believe that there are times when they must be allowed to be exempt from some of our laws because they are representing us. For example, members of the Texas Legislature are exempt from arrest for certain crimes during the legislative session and traveling to and from the session. This keeps law enforcement from an area from arresting representatives from another area in an attempt to silence the voice of competing communities. Sometimes we want to protect legislators from harassment from bureaucratic agencies as we protect our system of checks and balances. After all, you can’t check the excesses of the executive branch if they can punish you for doing it.

Yosemite Sam

HB 905 has been pushed because members of the Texas legislature feel they are subject to the same kind of risks as those already exempt from the concealed carry limits: judges, district attorney, and other legal officers involved in dealing with criminal elements.

A story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (“Texas legislators seek expanded gun rights for themselves“) outlines some of the debate. According to Dan Patrick, sponsor of the Senate version, “We go from one place to another — maybe five or six places in one evening for functions and events — and we may be faced with either leaving [guns] in the car or taking them inside and violating the law.”

This bill is the result of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It is true that elected officials can become the target for deranged individuals. However, deranged individuals shoot people every day. The shooting of Rep. Giffords was a national story because of who the victim and not because of the criminal or their motive. Further, the Congresswoman wasn’t the only person whose life was in danger that day. Everyone in that crowd was at risk.

Some legislators claim the bill would eventually lead to broader gun rights for all citizens because granting a special exception for legislators is a step toward removing limits on everyone. There are two problems with bill advocates taking cover behind broad Second Amendment arguments. (1) Granting an exception to an elite is the wrong place to start. If circumstances dictate that a Texan has need of self-protection then the exception should be granted based on those circumstances and not limited only to legislators.  (2) Most Texas seem comfortable with keeping guns out of churches, bars, etc. In any case, exempting legislators from these rules gives them less incentive to change it.

It is not clear to me where legislators are invited to go where their guns are not. Are legislators meeting constituents at bars, prisons, hospitals, or amusement parks? Those don’t seem to be likely venues (or stops along the way). Do they feel unsafe at those church meetings or sporting events? I’m sure that legislators move from place to place and that leaving their weapon behind is just one more thing to remember. However, that is true for every constituent attending those events and the responsibility to remember the rules of concealed carry should be no less for our legislators than it is for the rest of us. If we can remember the laws the people who wrote the laws should be able to.

I am reluctant to call the bill silly until hearing more from all sides. Senator Robert Deuell, another bill sponsor, is generally a reasonable guy. However, this bill seems to anger Texans on both sides of the gun issue and creates the impression of an elitist perspective.