Texas House adopts rules package

The Texas House gallery on Wednesday was speckled with red shirts emblazoned with one message: “Ban Democrat Chairs.” Proposals to ban or restrict the appointment of Democrats as committee chairs in the House were the feature of today’s rules debate.

Both efforts failed, but in a different way than during the last session.

Initially, State Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) moved to adjourn and postpone consideration of the House rules until Thursday, citing a group of Texas GOP activists planning a pilgrimage to the Capitol.

That group chartered buses to bring individuals down en masse to voice their support for the message written on the red shirts. House leadership announced on Tuesday afternoon around 4:30 p.m. that the Rules and Housekeeping resolutions would be brought up the following day.

Slaton’s motion was not ultimately recognized by Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who told the body that the rules resolution is not required to be brought up two days after the session opens, despite that having occurred last session.

But then, when the proposals actually came to the floor, both were immediately “point of ordered” — a procedural maneuver to highlight parliamentary issues with the bill or resolution and kill its consideration — by state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth).

The first one, the across-the-board ban, was ruled prohibited by the chair who cited a newly-adopted section of the chamber’s “housekeeping” resolution — passed just minutes before with most members none the wiser — that forbids the use of House resources and staff for political purposes.

Sec 5.11. of the resolution reads: “A house member, committee, officer, or employee may not use or direct the use of any house resources to further any political purpose. In this section, ‘house resources’ includes appropriated funds, property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that comes into the custody, possession, or control of a house member, committee, officer, or employee by virtue of public office or employment.”

In the ruling, Phelan also stated, “Attorneys General John Cornyn and Greg Abbott have held that political parties are not public entities, but are political instrumentalities.”

State Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) questioned the decision from the back microphone, inquiring about the recognition and use of resources of the Texas House Republican and Democratic caucuses, to no avail.

After the ruling, the House moved on to the next amendment as state Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) stood at the back microphone. He was not recognized at the time, but protested from the back microphone once the House had moved on that he had 10 signatures to challenge the ruling of the chair on that Democratic chair ban amendment.

Because another amendment had been presented, Tinderholt’s signature list was no longer valid, according to Phelan.

A similar series of events played out on Slaton’s other amendment, which would have restricted Democratic chairs to specified, lower-level committees.

The same point of order was made and the same rule by the chair was issued. This time, Tinderholt said only Reps. Mark Dorazio (R-San Antonio), Nate Schatzline (R-Fort Worth), Richard Hayes (R-Denton), Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian), and Slaton would sign onto the list, and thus could not challenge the ruling.

Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi, who’s frequently objected to the appointment of Democratic committee chairs, criticized the decision, stating, “The Republican Speaker is taking the procedural position that restricting chairs to the majority party as every other state and congress does is using state resources for ‘political purposes’ and is illegal.” 

“This baseless [and] absurd ruling was made solely to protect Democrat power.”

The Democratic chair issue was not the only notable change proposed. The House adopted an amendment laying out punishments for members who “impede the action of the House” through unexcused absences, i.e. breaking quorum. It sets forth a $500 fine for each day of unexcused absence and prescribes censure, reprimand, and expulsion for breaking quorum — but has no explicit measure to revoke leadership roles, such as chairmanships, from those members. The speaker can always remove a chair from their position for any reason.

In all, only that amendment was adopted.

Other proposals included one to reduce the signature threshold for a motion to vacate the chair from 76 to five; a prohibition against “tagging,” the measure by which bills in the Calendars Committee would expire after another member “tagged” it; a requirement that committees hold record votes on all bills; and a litany of various requirements for committee chairs aimed at Democrats.

With the rules now finalized, legislators’ sights move to the certification of the governor and lieutenant governor’s elections on Thursday, followed by actual legislation further down the horizon.

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