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Senate's Procedural Change Has an Impact, but Not a Dramatic One

When the Texas Senate changed requirements on bringing legislation up for debate, Democrats said a process intended to encourage compromise would suffer. Several bills have been unblocked, but the conservative steamroller that Democrats feared hasn't emerged.

Parliamentarian Karina Davis watches as new Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gavels in the Texas Senate on Jan. 21, 2015.

In January, the Texas Senate upended nearly 70 years of tradition on how it brings legislation to the floor for debate. Whereas it used to take the support of two-thirds of the senators present to bring up a measure, it now takes only three-fifths.

The move was more than an administrative adjustment. In a body split between 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats, the change in the threshold meant Republicans could bring up a bill and pass it without the support of any Democrats.

Supporters, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had pushed for the change for years, framed it as allowing Republican senators to implement the will of the voters. To critics, the shift was nothing less than a rejection of the Senate’s guiding principle, that finding consensus is the best path to writing good laws.

“By forcing this rule change, the majority is escalating partisanship to a new level,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said at the time. “They are so concerned with getting an agenda accomplished and making good on campaign promises that they are willing to burn down the institutions and the traditions that made the Texas Senate one of the greatest deliberative bodies in the country.”

Four months, later, the full impact of the first legislative session without the two-thirds rule has come into focus. Out of more than 700 bills voted out of the Senate so far, roughly 30 bills have moved forward with fewer than 21 senators, the threshold required under the two-thirds rule. Most of those measures were passed over the opposition of Democrats.

“The 19-vote rule has allowed Republicans, the majority party, to pass legislation that has been blocked for many years,” Patrick said in a statement. “At the same time nearly 95% of legislation has passed with bi-partisan support."

The rule works by placing what is called a “blocker bill” at the beginning of the Senate’s daily calendar, where it sits for the rest of the session. No other bill can be passed unless enough senators agree to "suspend the regular order of business" and skip over the blocker. With three-fifths of the Senate now required to move legislation forward, 19 senators must agree to move forward if all members are present.

While not quite creating the conservative steamroller that Democrats had feared, the rule change has unblocked several of Patrick’s priority bills and moved them forward on party-line votes including:

  • Open carry — Senate Bill 17, from state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, would allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry holstered handguns openly. The bill passed the Senate in March on a 20-11 vote. A similar measure passed the House. Both chambers are now working out differences to get a measure to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
  • Campus carry — Senate Bill 11, from state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on campus, passed the Senate two days later on a 20-10 vote. The measure has failed to gain traction in the House.
  • Moving the public integrity unit — Senate Bill 10, from state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would move the state’s public integrity unit from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers. Some Republicans have said the unit has had partisan motives for its prosecutions. The measure passed 20-11. The House has passed a similar measure, and backers are working on a compromise version.
  • A-F grading for schools — Senate Bill 6, authored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would have the state grade schools on an A-through-F scale, largely reflecting student academic performance on standardized tests. The measure passed 20-10. Language from Taylor’s bill was folded into a bill that recently passed the House.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said that the rule change has moved bills that are “partisan and socially divisive” but agreed with Patrick that most bills have been unaffected.

“The majority of bills are not partisan, and most of those votes are based on public policy, based on merit and negotiations taking place among the various stakeholders and the senators,” Hinojosa said.

Yet the rule change has had a broader effect on the Senate as a whole, reducing the interest of Republicans to work on bills to build a broader coalition of support, argued state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

“As a result of it, the idea that it’s a deliberative body really is not true anymore,” Watson said.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, warned against reading too much into which bills have moved forward this session on 19 or 20 votes. Some might have still managed to pass under the two-thirds rule.

“You don’t know how hard the sponsor of that bill would have worked to turn votes,” Eltife said. “If the rule was 21 and I was stuck at 19, I’m going to work my tail off to find two more and turn them.”

Even with the rule change, some measures championed by Patrick and other Republicans have still hit a brick wall. Two high-profile immigration proposals — one to repeal in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and another to institute a so-called sanctuary cities ban that would stop cities from limiting the immigration enforcement powers of local law enforcement — remain in limbo because of opposition from Republicans including Eltife and Kel Seliger of Amarillo. Some school voucher measures championed by Patrick have also failed to come to the floor because of resistance from some rural Republicans.

Seliger said the inability of those bills to move forward shows that the impact of the rule change hasn’t been as dramatic as many predicted.

“Has it made a difference? Yes. Has it made a huge difference? No, I don’t think it has this session,” Seliger said. “It still doesn’t do everything that everyone wanted who wanted to have it reduced.” 

Ironically, even Democrats have passed a few bills out of the Senate this session with the support of just 19 or 20 senators. One such bill, Senate Bill 1032 from Watson, would make it easier for some state employees to work from home and have more flexible work hours. Watson said the bill would improve employee retention and reduce rush hour traffic. While some Republicans worried that the policy would be abused, eight Republicans joined the chamber’s 11 Democrats to bring it up for debate last month. It passed and is now moving through the House.

“That is a bill that in previous sessions, for whatever reason, would have died, and so be it,” Watson said. 

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