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Analysis: A History Lesson on Stifling the Senate's Minority Party

Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick has said that if elected lieutenant governor, he might not name any senators from the other party to lead committees. It would be a bold move, but not unprecedented.

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick.

*Correction appended. 

Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick has said that if elected lieutenant governor, he might not name any senators from the other party to lead committees. It would be a bold move, but not unprecedented.

Bob Bullock, a Democrat, did it more than 20 years ago. He regretted it almost immediately.

Bullock, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1990, started off by refusing to put any of the Senate’s eight Republicans in charge of a committee. When a ninth Republican won a special election for the last seat in the Senate after the start of the 1991 session, he didn't get a committee either.

The Republicans were zero for nine. But they had legislative savvy, and they went to work enforcing minor rules and generally knotting things up in the Senate.

They drove the new lieutenant governor crazy. By cutting them out of the game, he had stripped himself of the tools he needed to keep them on his side: They did not owe him anything. Bullock told reporters later that he had made a mistake. About midway through that 1991 session, Bullock went to the ringleader — Sen. O.H. “Ike” Harris, R-Dallas — and made peace. Before the next session began, Harris was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence.

Bullock’s last regular session as lieutenant governor was in 1997. By then, Republicans were in the majority and had six of the Senate’s 15 chairmanships. Two years later, the Republicans had lost a seat and held a slim 16-15 majority in the Senate. Bullock's replacement, Republican Rick Perry flipped the numbers on the committee chairmanships, giving nine to Republicans and six to Democrats.

The Senate today is firmly in Republican hands, with 12 Democrats among its 31 members. With Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, giving up her seat to run for governor, the Republicans are pressing to cut that number to 11.

And Patrick told The Texas Tribune in September 2013 that he could shut out the Democrats. His steady criticism of a rule that requires assent from two-thirds of the senators before a bill can be considered took root during the Republican primary: All four of the candidates, including the incumbent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, agreed that it should be changed.

That is not a matter for a lieutenant governor to decide — the senators set the rules at the beginning of each regular session — but all four candidates agreed that 60 percent assent would be preferable. That happens to be the number required to control a Senate that has 12 Democrats.

The combination of those two ideas — locking the minority party out of management and declawing the partisans who might block Republican legislation on the floor — might have spared the majority of last summer’s filibuster on abortion and women’s health care. It also might have cleared obstacles in periodic fights over political districts, voter ID and the like.

New obstacles might crop up. The Democrats can be a pain in the neck, and like the Republicans of 1991, they are not helpless. Look at what idle hands can do. Harris had been in the Senate since 1967 when Bullock handcuffed him. Experience won the day. The dean of the Senate, John Whitmire, D-Houston, has held his seat since 1983 and served for a decade in the House before that; he witnessed Harris’s rebellion and could find himself in the situation that led to it. Other Democrats in the Senate have the chops to cause problems if they have nothing else to do. Patrick has children; he ought to know that people get antsy when they don't have anything to do.

Dewhurst is still fighting for his job in the May runoff, and while he has voiced support for the change in the two-thirds rule, he has dismissed as impractical the idea of one party holding all leadership positions. Under his management, six of the Senate's 18 standing committees are chaired by Democrats. 

Even if Patrick defeats the incumbent, he would face state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, in November. She has been in the Senate since 1999, and she served in the House for about 10 years before that. She is a serious opponent, and could be a tricky rival in the Senate.

That last tidbit is important. Should Van de Putte lose in November, she would return to her current job for at least two more years — as an experienced, savvy state senator, waiting to help or hinder the next leader of the Senate.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Patrick had promised not to name any Democrats committee chairs. The lieutenant governor candidate has only said that it is possible he won't name any. 

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State government 2014 elections Dan Patrick David Dewhurst Rick Perry Texas Legislature