Quiz time. True or false: If legislation is brought up for debate in the Texas House and a majority of lawmakers support the bill, nothing can defeat it.
Answer: false. A bill can be stopped in the House by what’s called a point of order.
That's what happened Monday night during debate on a bill that would fund the state’s 50-year water plan. It had majority support, but Democrats didn’t like an amendment that could have forced other parts of the budget to be cut to fund water infrastructure. So state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, pointed out that, according to the House rules, that bill wasn’t eligible to be heard until the 118th day of the legislative session. And Monday was only the 112th.
"The rules have been used to advance legislation," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. "Sometimes someone can use the rules creatively to move things forward when they can’t get their bills out of committee. And then, of course, rules are also used to slow things down."
Martinez Fischer has made a name for himself as a lawmaker who studies and uses the rules of the House to further his causes. He said that in 2011 he called 16 points of order to slow down legislation he didn’t like.
"People who understand what the functions of the rules are, you never see them complain," Martinez Fischer said. "It’s the folks who think that because you have a mathematical majority that you should do anything around here. And simply, the rules don’t let you do that.”
Points of order can take many forms, from Turner's on Monday night — which showed the bill wasn’t yet eligible for a vote — to smaller infractions, which state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said don't change the substance of a bill and shouldn’t be allowed to block its progress. King helped lead a successful effort to change the House rules to eliminate delays based on little more than a typo.
That beginning-of-session rule change also included the creation of an electronic witness affirmation form that people can fill out using a tablet computer outside the different House committee rooms. People now fill out and submit all the information needed, with the goal of limiting typos and lost, incomplete information.
King told lawmakers in January that the purpose of the rules isn't to kill a bill over a misspelled name.
"The purpose of rules, the purpose of the Constitution, the purpose of our process is to make sure that the public and all the members have a complete full understanding of all the legislation that’s brought before us," King said.
So far, King’s efforts appear to have limited the number of successful points of order this session. But it’s a powerful tool in a lawmaker’s toolbox — one they’re not likely to give up anytime soon.