A year ago today, Democrats found out they still have the numbers to turn the Legislature’s head, packing the Capitol with supporters of Wendy Davis’ filibuster against new abortion restrictions and tougher standards for many women’s health clinics. Whether or not it translates into success at the ballot booth, the demonstrations already have legislators thinking about how they conduct their business.
The protests rattled the political class for some of the same reasons the first Tea Party rallies in April 2009 shook things up: Legislators get spooked when large crowds of angry people yell at them.
They pay heed, however, sometimes in unexpected ways. One way to answer a noisy protest is to decrease chances for noisy protests. Take, for instance, proposed changes to the Senate rule that requires the consent of two-thirds of the senators before debate on a piece of legislation can begin.
The rule comes into play several times every legislative session, but it most often floats into the headlines when the issues at issue are politically important. Relatively few people care when senators can’t muster the votes to change an obscure regulation or to spike a minor piece of legislation without bringing it to an open vote.
The big ones get attention.
The special session filibuster that turned Davis into a big enough name to top the statewide ballot was certainly one of those, and her long talk gave protesters time to assemble, to pull on orange T-shirts and to flood the Capitol.
Republican senators didn’t have the votes to shut her down, so they instead resorted to close and controversial enforcement of the rules about what is allowed during a filibuster.
Those countermeasures nearly worked.
Republicans shut down the filibuster and then, because of delays caused by that rambunctious crowd and by debating senators on the floor, they failed to get a final vote on the abortion and health care legislation until the midnight deadline had passed.
The governor called them back for another special session, and they passed their bill and eventually went home.
When lawmakers come back in January, it looks like the Senate might be in the mood to get rid of that two-thirds rule, perhaps replacing it with a 60 percent rule. The lower number would work the same way, but would give Republicans a functioning supermajority — at least in terms of what can come up for consideration in the upper chamber of the Legislature. There are currently 19 Republicans in the 31-member Senate (the parties are battling over the SD-10 seat now held by Davis); that is not enough to give them two-thirds, but it is enough to meet the requirements of the proposed 60-percent rule.
All four Republicans who ran for lieutenant governor endorsed the change, and it appears that many of next year’s incoming Senate freshmen share those sentiments. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, likes the current rule, but it might not matter who wins the lieutenant governor's race, as the rules are set by the Senate itself and not by its presiding officer.
The filibuster was a big deal, whether you were delighted by it or dismayed.
It added to efforts that were already underway — from Battleground Texas and others — to rebuild the state’s patchy network of liberal voters, and now it is a rallying point for Democrats. And it got conservatives calling for changes in the way the Senate does its business.
The Republicans got their law. The Democrats found their candidate for governor after her filibuster triggered an invigorating public display of the power of crowds.
Different crowds get different results. The Tea Party turned out to have staying power and is now an energetic and influential part of the GOP. Texas Democrats, weary of decades of Republican rule, hope to keep their own vociferous populists in the game and are kicking off the general election season with a Wednesday commemoration of the filibuster.
Davis, now the Democratic nominee for governor, and Van de Putte are scheduled to appear at an Austin rally Wednesday evening, with watch parties tuned in from around the state, on their way to Thursday’s start of the party’s state convention in Dallas.
The real measure of the anniversary will come in the general election in November.
The people who assembled at the Capitol a year ago learned at least as much as the Senate did. They came, they made noise, they had an impact, and they found out that they were not alone in a political environment that is dominated by people they disagree with.
Sustaining that kind of passion is difficult, but so is getting it started in the first place. That’s why they’re celebrating.