Analysis: Legislators show that men will be boys — if you let them

It’s hard to imagine a female Legislature devolving into a parking lot rumble like the one that embarrassed Texas nationally this week. The ruckus in the House punctuated what many lawmakers have called a notably ugly session.

Following a "sanctuary cities" ban protest in the gallery, lawmakers tussle on the House floor on May 29, 2017 — the last day of the 85th regular legislative session. 

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This isn’t so much a scolding as an observation: If the Texas Legislature were a person, we’d call him a hothead.

It’s not because legislators battle with one another — that’s the design. That fancy pink granite building with the funny lid is a monument to disagreement. It’s the opposite of “Take your fight outside.” It’s the place to take your fight inside.

It’s the place to put down the guns, unclench the fists and act like decent, full-grown humans willing to solve their differences without violence. And — this is the part that actually makes it work — to abide by the results until the next time to fight, whether that’s in court, at the polls or in the next legislative session.

It requires adult temperament, disposition, character — whatever you want to call it. When that goes missing, as it did in an angry outburst on the floor of the Texas House on Monday, it threatens to turn the whole legislative dance back into a brawl and undermines the credibility of the players and the institution.

Some debates make politicians and the government grander and more respectable. Cool, even. Others — this one didn’t really ever rise to the level of a debate — make it all seem a couple of sizes smaller. 

Let’s go back and address the pronoun in the first sentence.

Him.

According to the Legislative Reference Library, 23.9 percent of all of the women — all of them — who ever served in the Texas Legislature are in office right now. That’s 37 of the 155 who have served in the Texas Legislature’s history.

About one in five Texas lawmakers is female. Over the state’s history, 2.8 percent of the 5,571 people who’ve served in the Legislature have been women. The 155 women who've served wouldn't be enough — if they were all alive and in office today — to fill all 181 seats in the House and the Senate.

Zero percent of the women who have served in the Texas Legislature were involved in the last day’s shoving match. If you know any of them, you know that’s not because they were afraid.

Many of them have the same beefs about the immigration legislation that sparked the commotion on the Texas House floor. The anti-“sanctuary cities” legislation came out of that body this year after a searing debate — the kind that tests the notion of “take it inside” that the Capitol was built to serve.

The debate over that legislation was a personal fight for many members, who felt they were witnessing the state reaching back into its racist history. Many of the conservative Anglos in the House were baffled that the opponents were taking the proposal personally and angry that they were being cast as anything other than lawmakers trying to enforce standing immigration laws. The names of the people who shouted and shoved this week are less important than the fight they were still having — and will be having — over immigration.

Some debates make politicians and the government grander and more respectable. Cool, even. Others — this one didn’t really ever rise to the level of a debate — make it all seem a couple of sizes smaller.

That debate changed the tenor of the session. It was probably the calling card of the 85th Legislature — unless you want to claim that title for the “bathroom bill.”

The content of the new sanctuary law is already bound for court. The arguments over it pulled the Legislature into the political style of the moment. It’s no time for calm, reasoned arguments built around mutual respect; the vogue is for hot takes and angry words, for shouting and yelling and — evidently — pushing and shoving and grown men in suits flexing their dramatic chops by trading tough-guy threats lifted from cheesy movies.

It is striking that it was a pack of men who squabbled this week and that it came to a boil over an issue that many legislators feel is well worth the fight. The subject matter is part of the DNA of a state where the dominant political party, itself built of both natives and migrants, is energetically fighting immigration from, among others, the country that begat Texas in the first place. Land, history, class, race, immigration and migration all in one basket. It’s hard to imagine a female Legislature devolving into a parking lot rumble like the one that embarrassed Texas nationally this week. Coming as it did on the final day, the ruckus in the House punctuated what many lawmakers have called a notably ugly session.

It follows a notably ugly election cycle that set new standards for obnoxious behavior. Maybe it precedes another one.

They’re lucky it fell on the last day of the Legislature’s regular session in Austin, and that everybody has gone home for a while.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The state's top leaders couldn't close a session-ending deal over the final weekend, giving advocates of bathroom and property tax legislation — if the governor allows it — another chance.
  • The last Saturday of the legislative session — a day combining long, boring periods of inactivity with high levels of drama. In other words: perfect for a wandering mind.
  • Texans will get a close look at the state's top leaders over the next three days — the end of the regular legislative session — as they try to unknot their differences over regulating restroom use and limiting local property tax increases.