I’ve come up with what I think is a good way to make Texas laws. Hear me out, see what you think.
First, we’ll divide the state into districts, with each district electing one of its best and brightest to send to Austin for the lawmaking process. Some districts, of course, might choose to send something other than their best and brightest. I’m OK with leaving this to local control.
As a check and/or balance, we’ll have two lawmaking bodies. We’ll call one the “Senate” and one the “House.” They shall be co-equal bodies, but the Senate will consider itself superior to the House. House members will scoff at that notion, until they become Senate members.
Each body will meet periodically, perhaps for 140 days in odd-numbered years, to debate proposed laws on matters of great importance, as well as stuff lobbyists tell them to do. The makers of law can meet in special session whenever the governor is feeling kind of special. Nothing becomes law unless approved by both chambers and not vetoed by the governor.
Good, right? Under this system, we only get laws when they’re OK’d by a majority of the lawmakers elected by the people. And if one chamber, say the Senate, decides it wants to require a two-thirds vote to approve anything, so be it.
Oh, one other thing. It’s a rule that will apply only in the Senate. Rather than paraphrase, here’s the text:
“Notwithstanding the fact that a measure has majority or supermajority support, any one senator shall be able to block approval of any measure if he or she, in compliance with Rule 183 of the International Association of Athletics Federations, can successfully complete a pole vault of at least 14 feet.”
Hold it right there, cowboy, I hear some of you saying (though I’m not sure why you think I’m a cowboy). What, you say, does a feat of physical prowess have to do with making law? Where, you say, does that fit into the sense of fair play in the making of law?
And how, you say, could that possibly be equitable to senators who, though otherwise qualified to serve with distinction, would be disadvantaged by not being able to perform such a feat of physical prowess?
What would we call a state that operates with my obviously repugnant, discriminatory and downright unfair pole-vault rule or any rule that places a lawmaking premium on physical abilities?
We’d call the state “Texas,” where, as in other states, there exists such a system. And we’d call the feat of physical prowess a “filibuster.”
It’s time, I’m here to argue, to get rid of an antiquated, perhaps-never-justifiable procedure that lets one lawmaker’s ability to stand and talk (while eschewing food/liquid input and finding a workaround for output) thwart the will of the duly elected representatives of millions of Texans.
The whole thing is crazy, and I thought that back in June when Sen. Wendy Davis D-Fort Worth, mounted her 13-hour filibuster against an abortion regulation bill she (and I) opposed. Her filibuster (in conjunction with gallery screamers who took it upon themselves to interrupt representative democracy) did the three things that most filibusters often do: Nobody’s mind was changed, what the filibusterer opposed eventually was approved and the filibusterer became famous, at least for a while, for nothing more than standing and talking for a long time. In this case, it helped propel Davis to national stardom and a possible 2014 gubernatorial bid.
A filibuster is an impressive act of physical and mental stamina. So is winning a hot dog eating contest (hey, let’s write that into the Senate rules). And I don’t really see how a filibuster is an act of courage, unless you’re under doctor’s orders to sit down and shut up. A Senate insider who was inside the Senate the day of the Davis talkathon told senators, “This is an endurance contest, that’s all this is.”
Yep, that’s all a filibuster ever is. You’d yell at your kid for doing it.
Under Texas Senate rules, and rulings made on them, a member speaking on the floor “must stand upright at his desk and may not lean or sit on his desk or chair.” (It says “his,” though other Senate rules go with the non-gender specific “a member.”) So the physical condition of a particular senator comes into play on filibusters, with the rule disadvantaging older or more-infirm members. Shouldn’t all senators have access to all procedures?
At the most extreme — and it’s not as preposterous as some I’ve mentioned it to seem to think it is — what would happen if Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott happened to be Texas Sen. Greg Abbott? He’s been in a wheelchair for many years as a result of a falling tree limb that hit him while jogging.
Would someone like that be barred from filibustering in the Senate, or would that person be a filibusterer extraordinaire advantaged by being able to remain seated during the extended remarks?
The whole thing is just weird and must be added to the list of things it’s going to be difficult to explain when visitors from other planets arrive. Heck, it’s hard to explain it to folks from other countries (except perhaps for folks from countries that that still grant royal status to anyone who can yank a sword from a stone).
“A filibuster is a strange lever in the U.S. political system to prevent a vote on legislation. You just have to talk up until the deadline,” Kate O’Toole, who has a morning radio show in Darwin, Australia, wrote in marveling at the Davis filibuster.
Her thoughts appeared online under the headline “The Pee in Politics.”
“The future of abortion legislation in Texas relied upon Wendy’s mental focus and physical endurance,” O’Toole wrote. “Did it also rely on her bladder? … All in all it seems like an undignified problem and definitely more of a problem for women than for men, but that’s not the extent of the discrimination. In Texas, the rules are so strict about no sitting that you can’t conduct a filibuster if you are in a wheelchair.”
You know something is really wacky when even Australians think it’s wacky.
The U.S. Senate has a filibuster tradition, but in D.C. a filibuster can be ended by what’s called “cloture.” It takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to shut down a filibuster and let work proceed.
In the Texas Senate, there’s no vote or procedure that can stop a filibuster once it’s underway. The lieutenant governor can preclude one by refusing to recognize a senator who plans to filibuster, but custom and tradition says that’s a nuclear option always avoided.
The U.S. Senate website has a nice explainer about filibusters.
“Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history,” it says. “The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning ‘pirate’ — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.”
And there’s this: “Filibusters were particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture was invoked after a 60-day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Isn’t that a proud history for a dumb tradition.
Here’s my ultimate fear: a filibuster against an effort to end filibusters.