There may be no better example in the Texas Legislature of the tyranny of House leadership and the corruption of the legislative process than the current practice of the House Calendars Committee. Under current House practice, 15 members hand picked by House Speaker Joe Straus, none of them conservative, are empowered to play a gatekeeper function. They prevent less-favored members from voting on legislation that has passed out of committee without the Speaker’s consent.
It is a consolidation of power that demands a defense from members who are not privileged enough to be amongst the 15, yet who defend the Straus regime.
Last year, State Rep. Jason Villalba – who has a penchant for stating and defending truths that his allies know are better left ignored – described Calendars as being made up of those members who are “loyal to the Speaker” and “who want to get things done.” He predicted that the committee would kill conservative legislation coming out of the Texas Senate.
State Rep. Tony Dale (R–Cedar Park), speaking with the Texas Tribune last week, defended the committee’s gatekeeper function as a sort of bizarre PR firm for the House:
“That’s the whole point is to get in there, take a look at the bill and make sure that it’s something that is not going to embarrass the House, not going to embarrass the members and vet legislation a second time in addition to what they saw in the original committee.”
That sentiment only makes sense in light of the practice of most members of saying yes to nearly every bill that is brought to the floor for a vote. For those members who impulsively support the agenda of House leadership, gatekeepers are needed to keep them from making embarrassing votes in support of bad legislation.
However, our system of government expects representatives to “vet legislation” when they confront it on the floor. If a bad bill gets to the floor, it would only be embarrassing if the members voted for it. If they voted it down, representatives would be able to hold their heads high.
Legislators’ tolerance of an elite group preventing them from having their say is an extension of the current abuse of process by House committee chairmen.
The rules of the House envision that all bills will receive a vote in committee. Favorable legislation should receive a report recommending that it be passed by the whole House, and this happens. However, disfavored legislation is supposed to receive a vote as well and a recommendation that it not pass. By reporting bills negatively in this way, certain mechanisms are put in play under the rules that would allow a majority of the legislature who disagrees with the committee to revive the disfavored legislation on the floor.
When our parliamentary system was designed years ago, its architects were wise enough to recognize that any particular committee might not accurately represent the will of the House. But under current House practice, committee chairmen simply refuse to allow a vote on bills they oppose. This failure to act disallows members who disagree with the chairman any recourse on the floor.
Calendars has been abused in much the same way. The committee is designed to provide a scheduling function. Every member of the legislature thinks their bill is the most important bill in front of the legislature that session, and so a committee is required to decide what legislation should be reached and in what order. Likewise, the committee is designed to gauge how long the debate on any particular bill should take.
If it were serving this function, the committee would benefit from having an ideological cross-section of the House. More viewpoints would enable the committee to know which bills are expected to draw significant debate or opposition and which might pass quickly. In this way, the committee would be empowered to decide the value of passing 10 relatively non-controversial bills, for instance, or choose to schedule a full day debating some hot button issue.
Under current House practice, however, members of the Calendars Committee are empowered to “tag” legislation they personally oppose, effectively killing it in the committee. The committee largely serves as a stumbling block for legislation. And with a composition of Democrats and liberal Republicans, it has increasingly become a stumbling block for conservative priorities.
As the session progresses, the Senate is expected to vote out more and more conservative legislation and send it over to the House. It will be interesting to see if members are so quick to defend the Calendars Committee if it holds up these conservative bills and prevents the members from voting on conservative reforms.