House Rule Change Could Weaken Democratic Minority

Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.
Crowds of visitors, lobbyists, and lawmakers turned out to the Texas capitol for the opening day of the 83rd legislative session, Jan. 8, 2013.

The Texas House's Democratic minority was dealt a blow Monday when the House passed an amendment to the chamber's rules to limit legislators' ability to derail a bill based on clerical errors. Calling "points of order” on such errors is a strategy lawmakers have often used to block measures they oppose.  

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, authored the amendment to the House rules to limit abuse of typographical mistakes to kill legislation. Points of order on those types of mistakes send bills back to committee to be corrected before they can return to the floor to be voted on.

“The practice has been to allow bill after bill after bill to be defeated because a clerk at midnight, a sleepy and tired 25-year-old, made a typographical error,” King said. “That’s just not appropriate.” 

Several Democrats and one Republican spoke against the provision, arguing that it weakens minority power. Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the amendment takes “tools out of the toolbox” for the minority party. 

Since Republicans became the House majority in 2002, Democrats have often called points of order on the paperwork, including committee minutes and reports, that accompanies legislation. Under the new rule, a point of order may be overruled if it is “substantially fulfilled and the violation does not deceive or mislead.” 

Democrats argue that the wording is too ambiguous. “Your amendment doesn’t seem to add more certainty, but less certainty,” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, went even further, claiming that the amendment renders the rulebook worthless. “‘If you want to discard this book," he said, "we will vote for your amendment.”

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, broke party lines by noting that point of orders only delay legislation by a few days. He also acknowledged that both Democrats and Republicans use point of orders to their own benefit.

The vote was 92-56, with only three Republicans joining Democrats against the amendment — Elkins and Reps. David Simpson, R-Longview, and Jim Keffer, R-Eastland.

Some Tea Party lawmakers — led by Simpson, who also challenged the speaker for his leadership position — hoped to punch holes in Speaker Joe Straus' power by reforming some House rules but came away with several tabled or withdrawn amendments.

Simpson proposed initiatives to increase openness, including making conference committees public and adding the exact times for House proceedings, but the first was tabled and the second failed. 

But other transparency measures were approved. Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, authored amendments that would allow Texans to submit video testimony on bills, to publish testimony and presentations by state agencies to the public, to quantify the cost and benefit of legislation by a range estimate by the Legislative Budget Board and to add fiscal notes to bills to demonstrate their economic impact.

The House rules were approved in full Monday afternoon. 

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