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Once Again, Legislating Will Interrupt Politicking

It feels like the 2013 legislative session, which gets under way Tuesday, is a five-month interruption of the election season. At some point, elections expanded to fill all of the space between the biennial sessions.

The March 1 primary ballot will feature 18 open seats in the Texas Legislature – two in the Senate and 16 in the House.

The Texas Legislature’s biennial 20-week session will start on Tuesday, and it feels upside down, as if governing the state is an interruption of the normal business of politics.

Think of it this way: legislators govern for 140 of every 730 or 731 days (leap years) and spend the rest of the time running for office.

Somewhere along the line, elections expanded to fill all of the space between sessions. Sometimes, they bust even those barriers. Talk of the 2014 races — of whether Gov. Rick Perry will run again, and what follows that, and who, and so on — was under way in Austin before the 2012 election had been held.

At the risk of sounding provincial, we in the provinces like to blame Washington for the current climate, where politics trumps everything.

The Legislature last met in 2011, on the heels of an election that matched Perry against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a fellow Republican, and then against former Mayor Bill White of Houston, a Democrat. It was a humdinger, and it ate the better part of a year. Perry went on a national book tour after his re-election — and before the session — and talk of his possible run for president became the order of the day.

That conversation and a tug of war over a tight budget dominated the five-month session. Once lawmakers left, the presidential primaries and caucuses (and Perry’s presidential campaign), as well as redistricting, Senate elections, summer runoffs and November elections, gobbled up the squares on the calendar.

It’s hard to find fault with a citizen who can’t remember the legislative session wedged into that schedule.

In civics textbooks, governing is the thing. Politics is in there, certainly, but the elections have a beginning and an end. The Legislature meets every two years for 140 days. A period of civic peace and prosperity follows for six or seven months. Birds sing. The sun shines. Children laugh and play. Late in the year, candidates file for March primaries. When that’s over, another period of relative calm would fall on Texas, ending around Labor Day, when candidates fire up their general election campaigns. The November elections would start the cycle all over again, regular as weather.

Back here in real life, the elections never stop. Neither does the electioneering. It’s a two-year political season, interrupted by five months of fierce legislating — a bit of which has as much to do with politics and elections as with governing the state.

The interruption started last month with the beginning of a ban on raising campaign contributions during a legislative session, and runs until June. Not only can elected state officials not raise money during a session, they can’t really campaign, and they must cross a parliamentary minefield, knowing that what happens between now and Memorial Day — the end of the session — could bite them in 2014, when the next elections take place.

Once the session starts next week and the politics of the speaker’s race ends, the politicos become lawmakers.

The Pollyannaish civics books are right, in part: the real consequences come during the governing part that starts next week. Everything else is just the fight to get into the building.

The candidates make their promises and then come to Austin to act on what the voters told them. And when they’re in Austin, they try to set up issues and votes in a way that hobbles their political enemies and buys some advantage for them and their friends in the elections.

To the lawmakers, the news media, the activists and others who complete the political circus, the political fight is often a lot more interesting than the policy details. That’s another thing about this respite from elections: boring or not, the policy details rise to the top. The weird ideas from the various campaigns stop being theoretical. Some of them become the rules we all have to follow, whether we voted or not.

It’s hard to distinguish which season is preparation and which is performance. The election is the long season, when ambitious people noisily and expensively apply for jobs in Austin. The short season that starts on Tuesday is when we find out if we hired the right ones.

And then it starts all over again. The governor and the attorney general were recently asked at a news conference what they’ll do in 2014. The answer? They said they’ll reveal their plans in June.

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