Session 101: Rules Of The Texas Legislature
Like any board game or major sport, there are big obvious rules to the Texas Legislature, and many more small and finite rules that can be hard to follow (or are rarely needed). The rules cover everything about the business of the Legislature – from the committee structures to how a bill becomes a law. Rules establish how long a bill has to be made public before lawmakers can vote on it, what is required to be recognized to speak on the floor, and how many votes it takes to pass a bill.
The Texas Senate made news this year by changing the rules for passing legislation. The new rule states that only 3/5 of Texas Senators – 19 of the 31 Senators in Texas – need to agree to bring a legislative item to the floor. The move is a shift away from how the Senate has conducted its business for years, and could possibly lockout 60% of minority voices in the Texas Legislature. The most famous use of Senate rules came in the summer of 2013, during Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster process that included hours of debate about technicalities regarding the rules.
In the House of Representatives, members voted on the new rules two days after Session began. There was no significant shift in House rules this session, despite efforts of at least one lawmaker to ensureevery person who signs up to speak at a committee hearing is allowed to testify. The House rules became a strong point of contention several years ago when Democrat and Republican lawmakers attempted to oust then-Speaker Tom Craddick, who claimed the House rules granted him “absolute power” of the Chair to not allow a vote to come to the floor that would remove Craddick from his role as Speaker of the House.
In both instances, the rules were used as tools by those in charge to wield power. However, learning how to use the rules to kill bills can be a powerful tool for the minority party of the Legislature – especially in the House. The fine print of how a bill becomes a law requires certain procedural steps that can sometimes be overlooked by committee or legislative staff trying to pass a bill. If a member who wants to stop a bill from passing closely examines each procedural step to determine if any errors occurred – a process known as “scrubbing” the bill inside the halls of the Capitol – he or she may find rules violations. If a member calls a “Point of Order” and announces the rules violation, the bill could be sent back to be fixed and – if it’s late enough in session – effectively killed.
Whether it’s to demonstrate power or fight back against it, the rules of the Legislature are important. Learning how to follow them and use them to one’s advantage is a critical process of succeeding during meetings of the Texas Legislature.