Just weeks before the new legislature is scheduled to convene in Austin, the presumptive next speaker of the Texas House has named two parliamentarians to serve jointly during the next legislative session. However, political affiliations and past statements raise questions about whether the pair will contribute to reform or will continue to justify abuses of power by the speaker.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton), who was recently unanimously endorsed by the House Republican Caucus and is set to take the gavel in January, announced his intention to appoint Hugh Brady and Sharon Carter to share the post.
Brady, who currently works as the director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost experts on the rules of the Texas House. He has biannually edited and published Texas House Practice, a comprehensive manual of the Texas House rules with practice notes offering interpretation and background history on each rule.
Brady’s political background, however, raises questions. A consistent Democrat voter according to election records, Brady served as general counsel for the White House Office of Administration under President Barack Obama from 2014-2017 as well as Parliamentarian for the Travis County Democrat Party.
Bonnen’s second appointment, Sharon Carter, also has ties to the Democrats. She served as a parliamentarian and chief clerk to former Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat who served as speaker prior to Republican Tom Craddick.
The House parliamentarian offers advice and interpretation of the rules when there are disputes between members of the chamber. While the position exercises a tremendous amount of de facto power over what legislation lives or dies, all decisions on parliamentary questions ultimately come from the speaker himself and, in regular order, those decisions are ultimately appealable to the body.
Brady and Carter, as well as Bonnen, will have plenty of opportunities to establish themselves as impartial and unbiased. However, if there is any favoritism towards House Democrats from the pair, it will certainly raise questions about the wisdom of Bonnen’s selections.
Some of Brady’s commentary in Texas House Practice also raises questions about whether he supports some of the abuses of power that took place under House Speaker Joe Straus.
A chief grievance during the Straus administration was his inconsistent and unfair abuse of the rules in order to prevent members from making motions which could affect the outcome preferred by the chamber’s leadership. For example, during the 2017 session, Straus frequently blocked conservative amendments to bills from being laid before the body, claiming he had ruled they were not germane to the bill and his “determination” was not subject to appeal.
The distinction between an appealable decision and a non-appealable determination drew mockery from the members — and with good reason. Final authority on the rules always ultimately rests with the members themselves. Any decision that cuts off the right of the body to review decisions of the chair is inconsistent with the basic framework of parliamentary procedure and is a clear and petty abuse of power.
It is troubling, then, that in Brady’s interpretation of the rule on the germaneness of amendments, as laid out in Texas House Practice, he suggests Straus’s position has merit. Brady states that when the speaker believes an amendment to not be germane, he has an obligation not to lay it before the body.
That tactic was used to quash a constitutional carry amendment by State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R–Bedford) in 2015, and it was used more often during the 2017 legislative session.
As a member of the House, the speaker could himself raise a point of order against an amendment he believes to be nongermane and dispose of it in a matter of seconds while preserving the right of the members to appeal his decision.
Straus also abused his power of recognition to prevent members from making routine motions, such as a motion to compel committees to report bills that he opposed. Members were given no opportunity to appeal Straus’s decisions on recognition and no explanation of when their motions might be in order.
His claims of absolute power were built upon abuses of the rules by Straus’s predecessor, former Speaker Tom Craddick, who ignited a firestorm in the House in May of 2007 when he asserted an absolute, unappealable right of recognition. That position caused the resignation of his parliamentarians and ultimately contributed to his replacement as speaker in 2009.
It is an abuse of power to cut off the right of members to appeal decisions of the chair. Any and all tactics that allow for such an abuse of power, including the refusal to lay out allegedly nongermane amendments, must be put to an end under the upcoming Bonnen administration.
Shortly after announcing last month that he had the votes necessary to become speaker, one of Bonnen’s first moves was to create an advisory committee consisting of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. This committee would interview possible candidates.
According to State Rep. Matt Krause (R–Fort Worth), who served on the committee, the work group was “unanimously supportive of Bonnen’s decision.”
Bonnen’s decision to replace the House parliamentarian has been seen as a good faith signal that he may be willing to put an end to the abuses of power seen under Craddick and Straus. His appointment of Brady and Carter send mixed signals on whether that is the case.
Texans will have to wait and see how fairly Bonnen operates, and whether there is any favoritism towards the Democrats, to determine whether he made good choices or not.