AUSTIN, TEXAS — Politics has always been bizarre in Texas. Perhaps never more so than two weeks ago, when most of the Democrats in the Texas house fled to Ardmore, Okla., for four days to kill the congressional redistricting and some 200 other house bills.
Some background first: The Texas constitution has a two-thirds quorum requirement. Most of the time it’s not an issue, but this also isn’t the first time quorum has been intentionally broken to stop a controversial bill. In 1979, a group of 12 senate Democrats hid out in a West Austin garage apartment to block a bill that would have changed the date of the Texas presidential primary to benefit D-turned-R former Gov. John Connally. There have also been times when a group has walked out on the house for a few hours, but nothing on the magnitude of this most recent event.
ANATOMY OF A WALKOUT
Other news accounts in the Texas papers have focused on the logistics of how the Democrats pulled this off. I think the more telling question is why they did it. From my conversations with house members from a variety of factions, I gather there were three distinct groups with different motives coalescing around congressional redistricting and deciding to drop the legislative equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
The kamikazes: About eight to ten partisan liberals make up this group. They were key players in the last regime — committee chairmen, appropriations members, etc. — and at the center of every major issue. Whatever they wanted, passed. Whatever they opposed, died. Life was good for them. Then last November happened.
When Republicans won 16 seats and a solid majority in the house, the Old Regime ended. More galling still, the new speaker was Tom Craddick, the Republican primarily responsible for the regime’s demise. It was clear the plum assignments would be distributed to others. Therefore — from the moment Craddick announced sufficient support to become speaker — the kamikazes determined to make his tenure as miserable (and, they hoped, as short) as possible.
Non-controversial matters, such as suspending the Texas constitution’s regular order of business, now became the subject of floor debates. The art of slow-talking bills (“chubbing”) was raised to include the introduction of dozens — in some cases, hundreds — of similar amendments which had no chance of passage. Last month’s house budget debate — which usually takes two to four hours — took four days, thanks to 484 amendments which mostly involved transferring funds from a list of 16 disfavored programs to another list of 20 favored programs. Each hostile amendment was followed by a demand for a record vote. Points of order that were not called in the last couple of sessions are being raised again. And some of them have said that they were laying the groundwork for a walkout for about two months.
If the kamikazes were to lose, they wanted Republicans to win as little as possible and for Craddick to finish the session looking like the first U.S. House speaker after the Republicans took over in 1994: Newt Gingrich. Through the steady escalation of tactics over the session, so far they’ve accomplished both goals.
The red lights: Most of the Democrats (about 30 to 35) belong to this category. They represent safe Democratic districts and vote reliably with party leaders. These folks would object to any congressional plan that reduced the size of the Democratic delegation. However, they have also complained throughout the session about the “fundamental unfairness” of the process and the heavy-handed way the house has been run. Their efforts to amend bills have been defeated by a stable bloc of 80 to 90 votes. Some Republicans privately acknowledged that, though willing to support some amendments, they had also been directed by Craddick to toe the leadership line. One Democratic committee chairman told me that many Democrats had lost faith in their ability to influence the process, and viewed this maneuver as a “last rallying call” to prevent themselves from being completely steamrolled.
The trapped: These are about ten rural conservative members who represent swing districts. Given their druthers, they would have stayed in Austin. Most have voted with the Republicans on a number of issues this session — including tort reform, which enraged the Democratic party’s trial-lawyer sugar daddies.
There are rumors that the trial lawyers offered to absolve pro-tort-reform Democrats who went to Ardmore. If so, that gave these conscripts a choice. By staying in Austin, they would face token challenges next November but savage primaries in March. If they went to Ardmore, they would get a free pass in March but the state GOP would move heaven and earth to take them out in November — with President Bush driving the turnout.
In the end, it probably came down to the redistricting map, in which their popular local congressmen got eviscerated and their rural areas would be attached to districts anchored in the suburbs. Their involvement put the effort over the top. But even so, these guys were watched like hawks by their colleagues to ensure they didn’t bolt back to Austin.
Change either of the latter two circumstances and the walkout would not have occurred. The debates would have been long and vitriolic — even by this session’s standards — but they would have happened, the votes would have been cast, and the Republicans would have won.
NOW AND LATER: WINNERS AND LOSERS
Over the short term, the issue appears to be helping the Democrats. Newspaper editorial boards have been critical of both Craddick and the redistricting proposal from the outset, and their pronouncements became still more withering during the walkout. The reporters are in feeding-frenzy mode over inappropriate use of law enforcement resources to track down the Democrats and the destruction of documents that would clarify who was responsible for those abuses.
The balance of power in the last few days of the regular session has shifted to the senate, where Democrats have somewhat more influence. Of the bills that died, the provisions that come back to life will do so either on senate bills or as amendments to house bills added in the senate. Additionally, the relative stability and positive public image of the senate and its leadership right now give it tremendous leverage in any conference-committee negotiations.
Longer-term, though, the walkout could work to the Republicans’ advantage. The state is struggling to close a $9.9 billion budget shortfall and it will be touch-and-go whether the lawmakers can patch together enough revenue and budget savings to completely close it by next Monday. There are also sharp differences between the house and senate on medical liability, insurance regulation, and transportation.
Failure to reach agreement on any of those fronts could prompt Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session this summer, to which Perry would probably add redistricting to the agenda. This would hurt Democrats because they would have another issue to keep them in Austin, the Republicans would have time to get the redistricting process and plan right, and the Democrats would lose their biggest stopper — the senate’s two-thirds rule. In a regular session, two-thirds of the senate must agree to bring a bill to the floor, meaning that even if the Republicans all voted together, they would have to pick up at least two Democrats. In a special, that drops to a simple majority, which allows the Republicans to pass a plan even if they lose every Democrat — and three Republicans.
Initial polling shows Texans reacting very negatively to the walkout. Add in some of the bills that died from the walkout — tougher penalties on child pornographers, allowing students who are victims of violence to change schools, automatic expulsion of students who assault teachers, increasing the school property-tax exemption for the elderly and disabled, the creation of “Choose Life” license plates — and all of a sudden Republican challengers to the rural Democrats have some hot-button campaign ads. With Bush atop the ticket, Republicans could bolster their majority by several seats — and make future Democratic walkouts vastly more difficult to pull off.
— David Guenthner is managing editor of The Lone Star Report, an Austin-based newsletter on Texas politics and government.