Analysis: Votes Count, but the Rules Can Count More

At the end of the legislative session, votes still count and majorities are important. But the rules come into play as well, and so do the political minorities.

Texas House Parliamentarian Chris Griesel and Speaker Joe Straus with several other House members on dias May 1, 2015

In the last days of a legislative session, the lawmakers who know what they’re doing are often more successful than the lawmakers who are merely part of a majority.

Votes count, of course. But at the end, rules can count more.

Rules are why the Texas House never voted on a high-profile abortion bill on Tuesday night. The Democrats — and some Republicans who didn’t want to be outed as opponents— didn’t want to vote on it. Magically, it never came up.

Rules are why the Senate never voted on an amendment that would have hindered same-sex couples trying to adopt or to become foster parents.

Rules are why, at critical moments in both chambers during the last few days, observers and even many lawmakers spent so much time asking, “What just happened?”

And rules are why, on Wednesday morning, members of the Texas House were snarling their way through the usually uncontested local and consent agenda. That’s the list of bills that are either of local interest only — as opposed to statewide interest — or that have come most of the way through the legislative pipelines without attracting opposition.

The rules gave Democrats some rare wins in a Legislature where they are seriously outnumbered. In the 31-member Senate, there are only 11 Democrats. In the 150-member House, only 52 Democrats.

Two things give them outsize influence this week: the clock and the rules.

The regular legislative session ends Monday, and the calendar of the final two weeks is sprinkled liberally with deadlines. Well before the session is over, the committees in the House and Senate shut down, unable to hear from the public or consider legislation. Each chamber has deadlines for hearing bills — one for legislation that started there and another for legislation that started in the other place.

It goes on like that, and every time a deadline passes, another set of bills can’t be considered anymore. Delay becomes a valuable tool. In the Senate, filibusterers can talk a single bill to death just by keeping the debate going until the deadline passes.

In the House, a long debate on one bill can knock many other bills out of contention, eating up time that might have been spent on other things. They call it “chubbing.” Democrats and conservative Republicans chubbed on Tuesday morning, with an eye on undesirable legislation further down the agenda.

As that progressed, rules mavens all over the House were looking for ways to speed things up. They found some tricks. Members from the slow-down crowd met quietly with members from the speed-up crowd. Accommodations were made. Things sped up.

A long debate on ethics swallowed hours on Tuesday evening, the House’s last day to consider Senate bills for the first time. As time ran short, another bill — one that would allow licensed Texans to carry handguns on college campuses — ran into a problem. Democrats found what they thought was a technical violation of a rule on what materials have to be attached to a bill when it reaches the House. (Just because rules are important doesn’t mean they’re always interesting.)

It set up another rules play. After talking about that point of order — that’s what you call it when they call a foul in the Legislature — lawmakers agreed to speed things up. They voted quickly to amend the gun bill, then unexpectedly ditched around 100 amendments and approved the bill.

That left about a half hour until the deadline. House members passed five more pieces of legislation in the next 23 minutes, hit their deadline and called it a day.

At almost every turn in that last hour, the rules were more important than the votes. And they left some members a little bit angry.

It lingered into the next morning.

It quickly became evident during the unpleasant Wednesday morning that the House debate had more to do with settling various grudges and political fights than with the substance of the legislation being considered. More than a dozen bills fell, and because they fell on the last day available for consideration, they died right there.

But they weren’t knocked off by votes. All that’s required to whack an item on the local and consent calendar is opposition. One person can kill a bill by simply talking about it for at least 10 minutes. Five people can kill a bill by signing a form that notes their opposition. The House has 150 members. It takes 76 to make a majority.

That’s the power of rules.