I have suggested in the past that the chronically pathological U.S. House of Representatives should look to the Texas House of Representatives as a source for reform. Today I’m suggesting that the U.S. Senate, even more mired in dysfunction, take the Texas Senate as its model.
First, a recap of the point regarding the U.S. House of Representatives. That bitter body these days is a place where a majority of the Republicans voted to overturn Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote victory over Donald Trump, and where the thin Democratic majority is passing hugely consequential bills without significant input from Republicans.
It was no better when the Republicans were in control and enforced what they called the Hastert Rule. Named after a former Speaker, it kept any bill from going to the floor for a vote that did not have the support of a majority of Republican members. That meant that Americans represented by Democrats, who often as a group received more than a million more votes nationwide than Republican representatives, had severely limited representation.
By contrast, the 150-member Texas House of Representatives has two healthy and longstanding traditions that have survived these most fractious times. One is that the Speaker is not elected in the caucus of the majority. Speaker candidates quietly line up pledges from members of both parties after each biennial election before the sessions begin. The first one to 76 votes is elected Speaker.
Back in 2009, after Speaker Tom Craddick, in association with U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, had become dictatorial, 11 Republicans put up San Antonio moderate Joe Straus as their candidate and won the votes of 65 Democrats. The change in the culture of the Texas House under Straus’ less-partisan leadership was such that he was easily elected to four more terms as Speaker, tying the Texas record, before retiring from the House.
A second tradition, not surprising given the first, is that the Speaker awards committee chairmanships, which carry considerable power, to members of both parties in rough measure to their numbers in the body. The result is that while the Republican Party in Texas has moved more and more to the right, the Legislature has hewed much closer to center-right policies that Straus insists represents the state’s political reality. It has also meant that Texas has led the nation in some aspects of criminal justice reform and has, for the first time in modern memory, addressed public school funding issues without the state Supreme Court ordering it.
If the U.S. House were to follow Texas’ House in having the entire body – not just the party with a majority of as little as one – electing the powerful Speaker and have that Speaker assign committee chairmanships proportionately, the nation would be a far healthier place politically. So how should the U.S. Senate follow Texas’ lead? By following the wisdom of the right-wing former talk show host who runs the state’s Senate.
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Under the Texas Senate’s rules, the lieutenant governor is president of the Senate in more than a ceremonial fashion. He doesn’t just vote to break ties, as the vice president does. Like the House Speaker, he appoints committee chairs and memberships, and assigns all bills to the committee of his choice.
Texan John Nance Garner, one of FDR’s vice presidents, described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (often quoted with the euphemism “spit”). But because of his control of the Senate, the Texas lieutenant governor, by contrast, has often been described as more powerful than the governor.
For more than 70 years, the Texas Senate had what amounted to a near equivalent of the U.S. Senate’s current filibuster. Under state Senate rules, bills had to be taken up in the order they were introduced. Every session the first bill introduced was an insignificant “blocker bill.” A two-thirds vote was required to take up any subsequent bill “out of order.”
The rule was put into place when Texas was a one-party Democratic state. It was not to give the party power or to make the body more deliberative and civil, but to protect the interests of rural areas, especially in such matters as water rights and location of prisons. But when former conservative radio talk show host Dan Patrick first joined the Senate in 2007, he immediately filed a motion to remove the rule and require only a simple majority to take up a bill.
“What happened to majority rule? What about Jefferson and Madison and Monroe? It was all right for them,” he argued. He was right. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, having just experienced the sclerotic ineffectiveness of the Continental Congress, which could do almost nothing with a simple majority, was careful to limit its requirement of a supermajority to such matters as veto overrides and impeachment convictions – matters crucial to the balance of power between Congress and the presidency. If they had thought a supermajority to be a good idea for approving nominations and passing legislation they would have put it in the Constitution.
Patrick lost the vote 30-1.
But by the time he became lieutenant governor in 2015, nearly half the senators of eight years earlier were gone. He easily persuaded his Republican colleagues, who now were in the majority, to reduce the requirement to 60 percent. That happened to be precisely the number required to trump the Democrats. It also happens to be the percentage required by the U.S. Senate these days to overcome the objection of any single senator to a piece of legislation, a trigger that means virtually all significant laws require 60 votes to pass the 100-member body.
Last November, Texas Democrats elected 13 senators, barely passing the 40 percent bar. Patrick, without apology or high rhetoric, pledged to do away with the 60 percent rule. In January he did so with a straight-party vote. His argument was simple: It was what Republicans needed in order to rule.
“We’re the majority party,” he said. “We’re the majority in the House, we have all the statewide [elected offices], but the Democrats would be controlling the Senate because there are 13 of them.”
It’s a good argument, and available for Democrats in Washington. They control the House, the White House, and the Senate. The Senate is 50-50 with the vice president as tie breaker. Republicans represent only 44 percent of the population and a coalition representing less than a third of the nation’s people can under the current rules block legislation.
Patrick makes a strong, conservative case for majority rule. I suspect if Republicans in Washington were in the position Democrats are now in, Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn would be citing Texas as the model the U.S. Senate should follow.
They would be right.