Just before adjourning for two weeks, the Texas House approved rules governing its process during the 87th Legislative Session. The rules of the Texas House passed unanimously by a vote of 141-0.
While mostly run-of-the-mill practices such as establishing quorum requirements, setting decorum conditions, and permitting use of the chamber, some notable adjustments from years previous were included specifically in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Entry into the capitol itself, and movement within it, is more restricted than years past. The building remained closed to the public, due to the riots stemming from the George Floyd protests, from June of last year until shortly before the legislature convened this week.
Upon reopening, state leaders established regulations such as mandatory testing for entry, mandatory mask-wearing upon entry, and limited access to the chamber galleries. An opinion issued by the attorney general supported the basis of regulated occupancy, but it also rejected the idea of remote voting by members.
As an apparent compromise, the rules approved by House members allow for a member to cast a vote or register presence on secure, state-issued tablets from the gallery or adjacent rooms rather than solely from the floor. Additionally, while on the floor, masks are required but may be removed while speaking into one of the microphones available to members.
A basic quorum for the body requires two-thirds attendance of the body to move forward with its business.
But in committees, these new rules permit a quorum with only two members in in-person attendance. All other members may attend virtually. Committees must be open to the public. That requirement is satisfied, according to the rules, by providing a real-time video broadcast.
Committee hearings typically host physical testimony, but the option is now available for committees to opt for virtual testimony. Each committee chairman usually dictates the protocols of each meeting within the confines of statute and House rules.
Another proposed change came with a three-member minimum requirement to request a record vote on a given bill. Last session, only one member’s call was required to request a record vote — a tool used liberally by conservative and now-former Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford).
Despite the past limit, the three-member threshold mirrors the Texas Constitution. Article III, Section 12(c) reads, “The yeas and nays of the members of either house on any other question shall, at the desire of any three members present, be entered on the journals.”
An effort led by, among other members, Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) attempted to reinstate that one-member requirement. It succeeded right off the bat as Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), author of the rules bill, amended it to re-establish the one-member requirement.
A new calendar for “noncontroversial” bills was proposed for this session, dubbed the “Consensus Calendar.” The new calendar was intended to separate and expedite the passage of bills that have no opposition. But that provision was stripped in Hunter’s initial amendment.
Two efforts by Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) to prohibit members of the minority party from being appointed as committee chairs failed overwhelmingly. Slaton was one of four members back in December who called on then-presumptive Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) to appoint only Republicans to committees that would oversee any of the Texas Republican Party’s legislative priorities.
Phelan stated this week that he will appoint Democratic members to some committee chairmanships but did not specify for which.
A portion of the rules concerned media credentialing. Those credentials allow access to the floor for approved outlets.
The rules as drafted set requirements such as in operation for 18 months; that they are either a for-profit business reliant on advertising or subscription revenue or qualify as a non-profit; and that they publish periodically.
Slaton sent up an amendment to preclude the House from considering any legislation to name any “part of a highway system, including a bridge or street,” unless the chamber first voted on a bill to prohibit abortion. The intent of the amendment was to prioritize legal protection for unborn children.
Following Slaton’s remarks in support of his amendment, Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) proposed including a list of seven other conservative priorities along with prohibiting abortion.
Phelan sustained a point of order against Tinderholt’s amendment, ruling that the idea was not germane to Slaton’s proposal and should not be considered. Slaton’s original amendment failed by a vote of 41-99.
In an effort to battle coronavirus-related restrictions in favor of increased accessibility, Rep. Jeff Cason (R-Bedford) sent up an amendment that would have stricken from the House rules a provision that allows committees to keep their doors closed to the public as long as they stream their meetings online.
“We allow the public to visit the capitol, we allow the public to sit in the gallery, we should likewise allow the public to attend committee meetings,” Cason said.
Hunter contended the decision should be left to the committees themselves. Cason’s amendment was lost by a vote of 102-40.