Bill Hobby on the "Dreaded Two-Thirds Rule"

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[Editor's note: How Things Really Work: Lessons from a Life in Politics, by former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby with Saralee Tiede, is being published this month by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. In this excerpt — the first of three that the Tribune will run — Hobby writes about the Killer Bees and what he calls the "dreaded two-thirds rule" that froze the Texas Senate in 1979, 2003 and, almost, in 2009.

The biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate was trying to circumvent the Senate’s two-thirds tradition in 1979. The bill that set it off would have set an early date for a Texas presidential primary. The idea was to give Texas a stronger voice in the presidential nominating process.

We were in the middle of a contentious session in 1979. There was a well-organized and determined minority of Democratic senators who were fighting what they considered to be anti-consumer legislation. They were using every tactic in the book to block the legislation they opposed. One tactic was the filibuster. They had developed a tag-team variation on filibustering that could keep the talking going for days. I started calling them the “Killer Bees,” because no one knew when they would strike next.

There were enough votes in the Senate to pass the presidential primary bill, but not the two-thirds vote necessary to suspend the Regular Order of Business. (In order to bring up a bill, it is necessary to move to suspend the Regular Order of Business. That motion requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senate present and voting — twenty-one if all are present — to consider the bill.) I had to get the bill to the top of the Senate Calendar so I could lay it out without needing a two-thirds vote. We had already tried bringing up an election bill that could be amended to change the presidential primary, but the “Killer Bees” saw that coming and filibustered until midnight, after which only House bills could be considered without suspending another rule.

I gave notice that I would lay out the Regular Order of Business on Friday, May 18. That meant that the primary bill would be at the top of the calendar. It could come up and pass on a majority vote. Bad idea.

 

The opponents of the primary bill feared that Republicans would vote in the Republican presidential primary for former Governor John Connally, who was running for president in 1980, then vote for conservative Democrats for state and local offices in the Democratic primary that would occur later in the year.

The whole thing was a fiasco. In protest, twelve “Killer Bee” senators flew the Capitol to break a quorum. The “Worker Bees,” who stayed behind, spent each session haranguing the absentees, since we didn’t have the quorum necessary to transact any business. And we were in the very last weeks of the session with lots of legislation in the pipeline.

Before long, the Worker Bees put a call on the Senate. This action required all absentees to return. The Worker Bees sent the Texas Rangers to net the Killer Bees wherever they had flown. The fact was, for several days the Killer Bees had been hived up in Dora McDonald’s small garage apartment. Dora McDonald, Sen. Carl Parker’s chief of staff, lived only blocks from the Capitol. Her guests passed the time playing cards, arguing, and listening to each other snore. The Worker Bees continued to harangue them from the Senate floor.

One senator, Gene Jones, left the hive — he wanted to see his granddaughter. The Rangers heard that Jones was home in Houston. Photo in hand, they knocked on his door. A man who looked a lot like the picture opened the door. The Ranger asked him if he was Jones. He said yes. They arrested him and took him to Austin. He was Jones all right, but not Gene Jones. They had arrested Gene’s brother, Clayton. When the knock came at the door the senator had jumped over the back fence and stayed lost for another day.

After a few days I repented my ways (and still do) and the Bees returned to the hive. The bill never passed. It wasn’t a very good idea anyway. Neither was putting a call on the Senate. I can’t imagine what I was thinking. John Connally, a former Texas governor who switched parties in 1973, was a spectacularly unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, netting only one delegate, an Arkansas woman who became known as the “$11 million delegate.” That was what Connally’s campaign cost.

Some years later, the Killer Bees celebrated their anniversary at Scholz Beer Garten in Austin. I sent the Rangers to bring them to a reception in the Capitol. Clad in a beekeeper’s hat, I greeted them from the rostrum.

The Senate rules are designed to create an orderly process that respects the rights of individual members. They have lasted this long because they do the job well and consider the need for compromise in the legislative operation. Trampling the rights of the minority is never a good idea, but despite my bad experience, it has happened over and over again.

In 2003, Tom DeLay, who was then majority leader of the U.S. House and a congressman from Sugar Land, decided that the Legislature should again redistrict Texas seats in the U.S. House. No matter that this had just occurred, as ordered by law, in 2001. In 2002, voters had elected sizeable Republican majorities on both sides of the rotunda, and DeLay saw an opportunity to freeze Democrats out for years to come.

 

The minority Democrats in the state House saw no way to defeat DeLay’s redistricting plan on the floor. So fifty-two Democratic representatives took a chapter from the Killer Bees and flew away — this time to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the Texas Rangers had no jurisdiction. The absence of more than one-third of the House broke a quorum, and business stalled. This earned the absent Democrats the nickname “Killer D’s.” The regular session ended in stalemate, but Gov. Rick Perry called legislators back in a summer special session to redistrict. This time, the Senate Democrats took flight for Albuquerque, New Mexico. They had to come back, however, and the redistricting bill passed into law.

DeLay got what he wanted. Of the ten Democratic congressmen he had in his sights, only three were re-elected. Four were defeated, one decided not to run again, one lost the primary, and one switched parties.

Frequently, people criticize the Senate’s two-thirds rule. There is no rule called the two-thirds rule and never has been. In 2007, a freshman senator, lacking in manners as well as sense, inveighed against the custom at length on his first day in office. The Senate voted 30 to 1 against changing the custom. New members of the club shouldn’t try to change its traditions. Anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea anyway.

Two years later, in 2009, the issue came up again, specifically as a way to overrun the Democrats and pass a bill requiring Texas voters to have photo identification in order to vote. The Senate, with its Republican majority, adopted a rule that suspended the two-thirds tradition for just that one issue. Democrats lost the rules fight, 18 to 13, with only one Republican joining them to uphold Senate tradition. Remember, legislative rules are adopted at the beginning of the session by a simple majority, but, once adopted, it requires a two-thirds or four-fifths vote to suspend a rule.

Texas Republicans obviously considered the voter I.D. bill the most critical item that could come up during the 2009 legislative session. Forget health care for children and adults, the needs of higher education, and the prospect of a $9 billion drop in revenue. Forget that despite Attorney General Greg Abbott’s best efforts and a $1.4 million study, he could only come up with twenty-six cases of voter fraud, of which eighteen were legal votes that were somehow improperly handled after the ballots were cast.

Apparently Texas Republicans lack any sense of irony. When the same silly voter I.D. issue came up in 2007, the House of Representatives distinguished itself by fraudulently voting to prevent fraudulent voting. As I said, there is little evidence of fraudulent voting in the state, but there is ample evidence of fraudulent voting in the House. News footage by an Austin television station caught Texas House members pushing the buttons on their absent colleagues’ voting machines. The video quickly went to YouTube and was viewed more than a million times.

In the House, each member’s desk has a set of buttons on which a member can vote aye, no, or present not voting. When a member is away from his or her desk, the member can lock the buttons to prevent fraudulent voting. They almost never do.

The fraudulent voting to prevent fraudulent voting has become so notorious that on November 29, 2007, Speaker Tom Craddick asked the House Administration Committee to “study and make recommendations for alternative voting devices in the Texas House chamber and make recommendations before the next session.” The proposed solution, as decided by Speaker Craddick, was to spend approximately $128,000 on ten fingerprint-activated voting machines that House members could use if they wanted to. That’s right, according to the Austin American-Statesman, use of the expensive new gadgets would be strictly voluntary. Fortunately this was an idea that disappeared when Joe Straus became Speaker of the House.

During the Senate rules fight, Sen. Tommy Williams, who sponsored the Republican-backed rules change, cited “precedent” for his motion, naming a number of instances that occurred during my term in office. One, of course, was the bill that incited the Killer Bees — I’ve already explained what a bad mistake I made then. A few of the other bills he cited had come up during special called sessions, when the situation is different from that in regular sessions. In special sessions, the governor controls the agenda, deciding if and when to add subjects that can be considered. Thus, the Regular Order of Business may be very short, with no “blocker bill” and no need to suspend the rules. And some of the bills Williams cited were set for special order, which requires a two-thirds vote, just as it does to suspend the Regular Order of Business. Sometimes major legislation is set for special order — at a specific date and time—so that members know in advance and can be present to vote.

Another precedent cited by Senator Williams was a resolution granting permission to hang a portrait of Gov. Dolph Briscoe in the Capitol rotunda along with those of previous governors. There was no opposition. I probably never even sent it to committee. No one seemed to mind. I explained this all in a memo to Sen. Rodney Ellis, who was opposing the rules change, signed, “Your respectful parliamentarian, Bill Hobby.”

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