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Lawmaking That Looks Like a Schoolyard Fight

It turns out you can do a lot of damage with nothing more than a rule book, which is hazardous in a place that often runs like a schoolyard: Conduct trumps content.

House Democrats, including Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, at microphone, call a point of order on a "sanctuary cities" bill on May 6, 2011.

The problem with playground fights is that you usually remember who pushed you off the slide long after you’ve forgotten what you were fighting about.

Legislative acrimony in Texas peaked over the last week, pretty much on schedule near the end of the 20-week regular session. Mindful of impending deadlines, the state Senate found a rule that let the Republican majority ignore the Democratic minority and pass a budget on a party-line vote. In the House, the Democratic minority’s success at playing rope-a-dope with the rules prompted the Republican majority — like the Senate, in accordance with the rules — to adopt a shut-up-and-vote strategy, passing tort reform and immigrant regulation bills after cutting off debate and amendments.

In the constrained legislative milieu, those were comparable to street fights. The domed pink building on the hill in Austin was made for fighting, for settling arguments without knives and guns and fists. It can be mean and nasty, but they all have to wear their Sunday clothes and, when they’re within range of microphones, minimize their cussing and talk about issues at hand without getting too personal. Even though the Senate has voted to let lawmakers carry handguns in places where the rest of us are not allowed to, nobody has brandished anything more threatening than a rule book.

It turns out you can do a lot of damage with nothing more than a rule book, which is hazardous in a place that often runs like a schoolyard: conduct trumps content.

It’s not any surprise — or shouldn’t be — that the Republicans have the muscle to torment the Democrats in the Texas Legislature, particularly in the House.

It’s no surprise — heck, there’s precedent — that the Democrats can use parliamentary rules and delaying tactics to accomplish what they can’t accomplish with voting strength.

Here’s the surprise: The Republicans didn’t get the big issues out of the way before the end of the session, when delays and rules become effective weapons.

Texas Democrats have made an art form of delay, manipulating House rules that are designed to keep the machine running smoothly and fairly into a perilous bramble of technicalities and minutiae. It’s not that they’re breaking the rules, but that they’re selectively employing them so that the process breaks down. That’s not unreasonable for someone who thinks a broken legislative machine is better than one that efficiently produces an undesirable result, but it doesn’t sit well with the machine’s operators.

The Republicans’ response isn’t unreasonable, either, given their position: They won big on Nov. 2, and the Democrats are preventing them from expressing the clear public intent shown that day. So they’re pushing the Democrats off the slide. That doesn’t sit well with them.

They’ve still got a budget to complete, with the House and Senate on opposite sides of a $12 billion difference in spending plans. Legislative and congressional redistricting isn’t finished. Lawmakers face a pile of other major bills, too, and they’re almost out of time.

The end of the session is less than three weeks away, on Memorial Day. The rules gradually throttle down the process from here to the end, and it’s harder and harder to get things done. Legislation is dying. Tempers are short. And the partisans are pointing at the partisans. You’d be cranky, too, if you’d been locked up with a bunch of politicians for four months.

Everyone knew showdowns were possible. Gov. Rick Perry started the session by declaring five “emergency” issues — tagging some pet bills to allow early consideration. The idea was to get those things — prohibiting sanctuary cities, limiting eminent domain, requiring voter photo ID and pre-abortion sonograms and calling for a balanced federal budget — out of the way before bigger issues like the budget and redistricting gobbled up the legislative bandwidth. He and Republican legislative leaders were also trying to protect those issues from the clutches of Democrats at the end of the session.

They didn’t get that done. Blame them if you want, or blame the process. The pile of unpassed bills is a normal feature, and so is the acrimony. They’ll remember the fight, even if they don’t remember what they were fighting about. The rest of us will live with the results.

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