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Puppies, and the Legislative Power of Distraction

It’s tense at the Texas Capitol. It’s May — the last month of the session. Deadlines are arriving daily. Bills are dying. Legislative wish lists are drying up and blowing away. Blame the puppies.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson (r), D-Houston, talks to Rep. Mike Hamilton during the local and consent calendar on April 26, 2011.

It’s tense at the Texas Capitol. It’s May — the last month of the session. Deadlines are arriving daily. Bills are dying. Legislative wish lists are drying up and blowing away.

Time is precious, and big issues — the state budget, legislative and congressional redistricting, most of the governor’s self-styled emergency items, to name a few — remain unresolved.

Blame the puppies. Legislation regulating so-called “puppy mills” unexpectedly became a big lobby fight. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, had the bill on the Local and Consent calendar in the House — a legislative mechanism intended to pass uncontested bills. A freshman lawmaker, David Simpson, R-Longview, knocked it off, saying he opposed it. She put it back on. He knocked it back off.

It’s worth saying here that Thompson has been in the House since 1973. She’s the second most senior member of that chamber. She’s courteous, tough, widely respected, regularly addressed as Mizz Thompson, and powerful. She chairs the committee that sets those Local and Consent calendars.

She’s serious about the puppy bill and doesn’t consider it a distraction from other business. And she says that anyone with 11 pregnant dogs at one time — that’s the standard in her bill — ought to be regulated. “That’s 66 puppies running around,” she said. The House passed her bill, 98-43, and it’s now on its way through the Senate, having eaten up a lot of legislative time and promising to eat some more before this is over.

That’s why it’s worth some attention.

Legislative sessions wind down in a destructive collapse that kills most of the bills filed in the House and the Senate. It’s supposed to work like that: if we wanted lawmakers to linger, we’d let them regularly meet for more than 140 days every two years. The second-oldest line in the building is, “The process isn’t designed to pass legislation, but to kill it.” (The oldest line: “Who’s buying?”)

The floor sessions of the full House and Senate last longer every day as work piles up at the end of the session. That leaves less time for the committees to work, and it’s the committees that approve the bills that go to the full Legislature. Cut the floor time to make room for committee work, and bills die. Cut the committee time, and bills die. Slow down the debate, and bills die.

That can be intentional, as when the Democrats stretched debate on a voter ID bill two years ago and killed a bunch of legislation. Or it can be surprising and goofy, as in 2005, when everything stopped for consideration of what became known as the “cheerleader booty bill” — a measure regulating overtly sexual dance moves by school cheerleaders at sporting events. It filled the Capitol with TV cameras. It made national news. It provided content for everyone from columnists to comics. And it killed a mess of bills.

This isn’t new. What’s of interest to lawmakers and lobbyists and policy wonks and others isn’t always the same thing that’s of great interest to the public. Steven D. Wolens, a former Dallas legislator known for his brains and for his ability to guide complicated and controversial bills on utilities and law and telecommunications, was accustomed to the noise and clamor those issues attracted. But asked what got the most attention of all the things he sponsored in his career, he once told a reporter, with no hesitation, that it was a bill making it legal to turn right on a red light.

Another former lawmaker, Stan Schlueter of Killeen, remembers a bill that would have made it illegal to sell things on highway rights of way. In rural Texas, that’s a marketplace for a wide variety of products, from peaches to fake zebra-skin rugs to beef jerky. The debate went on for hours, and died when someone claimed that Earl Campbell’s mother sold roadside roses in Tyler. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter — in football-crazy Texas at the time, it was enough to kill the bill.

Former Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, carried the cheerleader bill. It achieved circus status about this time six years ago. Most people who remember it do so because, hey, it was about sexy cheerleaders. Some remember it as the sort of populist bill-killer that often appears at the end of a legislative session and knocks more “serious” bills out of consideration.

Keep an eye on those puppies.

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State government 82nd Legislative Session Senfronia Thompson Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Voter ID