Members of the Texas Senate pride themselves on the upper chamber’s stately traditions that make rules unnecessary.
But as tradition was elbowed aside during Tuesday’s tense filibuster over an abortion bill, senators were forced to dust off a rule book that has remained essentially unchanged since 1949.
The parliamentary chaos that ensued caused Robert’s Rules of Order to trend on Twitter as rapt online observers followed the senators deep into the legislative weeds. And it beget real-life chaos among the throngs of abortion rights supporters inside the Capitol.
“What rules?” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, adding that he thought Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst abused his power during the filibuster. “I worry that great damage was done to the Senate last night.”
That damage could have been avoided if the Senate had upheld its longstanding tradition of requiring agreement from 21 of the 31 senators before a bill can be debated, Watson said. That “two-thirds rule” wasn’t put in effect for the special legislative session because it allows the Democratic minority to block bills if most of them hang together.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, agreed that Tuesday was “a bad night for the Texas Senate and the Texas Legislature on multiple fronts,” though he believes the two-thirds rule is a relic that prevents the majority from enacting conservative legislation.
He laid the blame at the feet of the Democratic House members who came over to the Senate floor and “incited a riot” by egging on the crowd in the gallery. Those House members should lose their floor privileges, said Patrick, who is expected to announce Thursday his plan to run for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Dewhurst also faulted that “unruly mob” of spectators for violating the decorum of the chamber, which ultimately led to the bill’s demise because the senators couldn’t hear the roll call to vote before the midnight deadline.
The folks in the gallery had been quietly watching the proceedings all day, Watson said. But they reacted passionately to what they saw as an unfair decision by Dewhurst that effectively ended the filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
“The unruliness was in the failure to follow rules and tradition,” Watson said.
Standing next to Dewhurst during the unraveling was Senate Parliamentarian Karina Davis, who provides advice on rules, procedure and precedent. Karina Davis could be seen frequently speaking into Dewhurst’s ear before he issued several controversial decisions and that garnered a lot of attention online.
“Karina Davis, currently the most famous parliamentarian in the US,” Jim Roberts, executive editor of Reuters Digital, tweeted to his 97,000 followers.
The parliamentarian is tapped by the lieutenant governor but is ratified by and works for the full Senate, said Steve Bickerstaff, a University of Texas law professor who served as parliamentarian in 1975 and 1976 under Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby.
“The individual has to be willing to interpret the rules in a nonpartisan and fair manner,” Bickerstaff said.
That can be a challenge in the political pressure cooker of the Senate, said Bickerstaff, whose interpretation of the rules during a filibuster in 1975 led to a key decision that midnight on the Senate clock ended the legislative session.
Karina Davis, who served as Dewhurst’s legislative director before becoming parliamentarian in 2004, didn’t respond to a call for comment Wednesday. Nor did state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who took the gavel in the final nail-biting hours before the midnight end of the special legislative session.
Watson, who was the Democratic field marshal during the filibuster and its aftermath, said he likes and respects Karina Davis but questioned the guidance she was giving Dewhurst and Duncan.
“She was put in a very tough position by the leadership, but I was disappointed,” Watson said.