Texas

Democratic chair ban effort fails in Texas House, but rule passes to punish future quorum violators

The leadership of the Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday ended a long-running campaign to ban Democratic committee chairs, using procedural legislative maneuvers to reject numerous proposals on the issue.

The House also approved new punishments for members who violated the quorum, as did the majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives two years ago in protest against voting restrictions supported by the Republican Party. These members left for Washington, D.C. for several weeks to stop the House of Representatives from doing business and prevent the bill from passing. Under the new rules, quorum violators can now be subject to daily fines and even expulsion from the House.

The House passed the general set of rules by a vote of 123 to 19, with Democrats making up most of the opposition.

Starting the discussion of the rules, the most attention was paid to the chairmen of the committees, who have the right to promote the law or block its passage by the full house. For months, a small but vocal minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives has been calling for an end to the House’s long tradition of bipartisan committee chairs. But Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont and his allies successfully moved Wednesday to prevent the issue from even reaching a floor vote.

They did so by passing a “economic resolution” earlier in the day that included a new section codifying the constitutional ban on the use of House resources for political purposes. This resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority without much debate or fanfare. Rep. Charlie Guerin, R-Fort Worth, then cited a new order challenge clause — procedural calls — on two amendments proposed by Rep. Brian Slaton, R-Royes City, to limit the number of Democratic committee chairs. Both times Phelan ruled in Guerin’s favour.

“The amendment would require the speaker to use public resources, including working hours and public funds, on behalf of one policy toolbox,” Phelan said for the first time. “Obviously, this would require the speaker to violate the Housekeeping Ordinance.”

It was a relatively disappointing end to the fight for Democratic committee chairs that was a major issue in the House primary earlier this year, a rallying cry for conservative activists and a recurring theme in speeches as the legislature kicked off Tuesday. After Phelan was almost unanimously re-elected by the House of Representatives, he warned freshmen, “Please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C.”

“After watching Congress try to get started last week, I can’t understand why some would want Texas to be like DC,” Phelan said.

Appointments to the committee are expected to be made within the next two weeks. Phelan said he will nominate about the same number of Democratic chairmen as in the last session, but it remains to be seen if they will be appointed to lead any influential or coveted committees.

At least a couple dozen people sat in the House’s gallery on Wednesday wearing red shirts that read “Ban Democratic Chairs.” Others were due to visit the Capitol on Thursday, when rules were originally expected to be discussed.

Slayton proposed two amendments regarding the partisanship of the committee chairs. Its first amendment would require all committee chairs to be from the majority party, and its second amendment would require chairs of the 15 most prominent committees to do so. Six other Republicans in the House of Representatives signed the first amendment: Representatives Tony Tinderholt, Nate Schatzline, Richard Hayes, Steve Toth, Brian Harrison, and Mark Dorazio.

After Phelan acknowledged Guerin’s decision as a success, Tinderholt attempted to collect the 10 signatures needed to challenge the speaker’s decision. But Tinderholt said on Twitter that he found only four colleagues willing to sign up: Slayton, Dorazio, Schatzline and Hayes.

Phelan’s rulings drew an outcry from Texas Republican Party chairman Matt Rinaldi, a vocal proponent of removing Democratic committee chairs. This is one of the party’s eight legislative priorities.

“The Republican speaker is taking a procedural position that providing majority party chairs, as every other state and congress does, uses public resources for ‘political purposes’ and is illegal,” Rinaldi tweeted. “This unreasonable and absurd decision was made solely to protect the power of the Democrats.”

Before chairing committees of Democrats back and forth, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the rules to penalize members who “absent without permission for the purpose of obstructing the action of the House.” The vote was 87-59, almost entirely along party lines. One of the Democrats remaining during the 2021 quorum recess, Rep. Abel Herrero of Robstown, voted in favor of the amendment.

In the summer of 2021, most of the Democratic House of Representatives caucus violated the quorum for 37 days by fleeing to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to stop Republicans from passing a priority election bill. They were unsuccessful, and their protest sparked discussion within the Republican Party about what could be done to prevent a recurrence during future sessions.

The new quorum violation penalties include a $500 penalty for each day a member is absent. These members are also responsible for their share of the cost of sending a Sergeant-at-Arms to return members to restore quorum. And the Chamber may consider expelling them after an investigation and report on their actions by the Administrative Committee.

The amendment drew opposition from Democrats, who questioned its vagueness and potential conflict with free speech rights. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, asked Rep. Todd Hunter, Rep. R-Corpus Christi, about the definition of “obstruction” and how it would be applied in practice.

“I think if 70 people walk away together and publish this and send out notices, I think that is pretty much in line with ‘obstruction’,” Hunter said, as if hinting at the break in the 2021 quorum.

Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston, asked if the amendment would “revoke” members’ constitutional right to protest.

“You have the right to protest,” Hunter said. “But we have the right to conduct political procedures in the House of Representatives.”

Ultimately, 16 of the 19 votes against the rule package came from Democrats.

Debate over the rules went on for hours, and the inflammatory Slayton proposed a slew of other amendments affecting conservative social issues that some Republicans are expected to target this session. For example, he proposed an amendment that would put legislative activity on hold until the House votes on legislation to ban “erotic performances and drag shows in the presence of minors.” He also proposed an amendment that committee chairs “may not enforce a speech code that restricts the use of biologically correct pronouns.”

All amendments were unsuccessful.

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