After House Democrats left Austin for Washington, D.C., this week in order to break quorum and halt consideration of conservative priorities, Republicans in the chamber continue to beat their chests, calling for Democrats to return and do the work they are paid to do.
And while that argument is certainly true (after all, House Democrats who have left will continue to be entitled to receive their pay and per diem), there is one key fact that has largely been ignored: House Republicans allowed this to happen.
And though it was only this past Monday that Democrats packed up their bags (and beer) to jet off to the nation’s Capitol, Republicans prepared the path for them before the session began.
It started in November when now-Speaker Dade Phelan courted Democrat lawmakers in his quest to wield the gavel. Having served since 2015, Phelan’s record was no secret. In fact, he was one of only three Texas House Republicans to receive a positive grade from Equality Texas, a pro-LGBT advocacy organization that has heavily opposed legislation to protect children from gender modification procedures.
But despite knowing these facts, the House Republican Caucus voted to give him their seal of approval.
On January 11, the day before the regular 87th Legislative Session was slated to begin, Phelan went on record saying he would appoint Democrats to chair committees, a practice not even done in Washington, D.C. Instead, Phelan called the House’s “bipartisan” model one that “worked pretty darn well,” adding that it was not always about “Republican versus Democrat” or “left versus right.”
Despite this assertion, Phelan was overwhelmingly elected speaker of the House on January 12, with only two freshman voting against him: State Reps. Jeff Cason (R–Bedford) and Bryan Slaton (R–Royse City).
The next day, when the House had the opportunity to pass the rules that governed how they would operate for the session, Slaton offered an amendment to bar Democrats from chairing committees in the Texas House.
The opposition brought up State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R–Deer Park), who read a prepared statement opposing Slaton’s amendment, and the effort was soundly defeated.
Several weeks later, true to his word, Phelan announced his committee appointments with Democrats chairing several key committees, including Education and Business & Industry. Appointed as his speaker pro tempore was Democrat State Rep. Joe Moody (El Paso), who hangs a banner in his office accusing Republicans of racist intent for passing Senate Bill 4—the ban on sanctuary cities that passed during the 2017 regular session. Moody said he was grateful to be appointed to the “No. 2 spot in the chamber.”
Then, the long adjournments began.
During January, February, and into March, the House would often adjourn for many days at a time. Eventually, some conservative lawmakers—like Slaton and State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R–Arlington)—began to question leadership about why they were being asked to leave town while conservative priorities were not being addressed. They were told there was plenty of time by Republican lawmakers close to Phelan, such as State Reps. Will Metcalf (Conroe) and Cole Hefner (Mt. Pleasant).
But while there was indeed plenty of time, the Republican-led House continued to slow-walk the rest of the session to the detriment of many conservative priorities.
In the final weeks of the session, numerous Republican priorities—such as banning child gender modification, protecting monuments, and abolishing abortion—were killed.
And on the penultimate night of the session, when an omnibus election integrity bill was up for final consideration on the floor of the House, Democrats were told by Speaker Phelan that if they left the chamber, he would not lock the doors or send for them.
So, that’s exactly what they did. And the bill died.
Almost immediately, however, it became clear that Gov. Greg Abbott would call a special 30-day session so lawmakers could have a mulligan on some of the legislation, like election integrity, that didn’t make it past the finish line during the regular session.
At the same time, Democrats went on national media, forecasting their plans to leave the Capitol and break the quorum. Democrat State Rep. Rafael Anchia (Dallas) recently called the tactic “effective,” during an interview, adding that he “would be willing to” leave the state to break quorum.
While Republicans could argue they were caught off guard when Democrats broke quorum in May to kill the election integrity bill, with Democrats laying the groundwork early for their departure again during the special session, one would hope leadership would be prepared to address the issue this time around.
Instead, when the special session kicked off on July 8, it was business as usual. No one motioned to lock the doors or otherwise keep the Democrats from fleeing.
State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R–Arlington) filed a resolution that would punish lawmakers who shirked their responsibilities by stripping them of committee chairmanships, committee memberships, and seniority privileges.
But Speaker Phelan ignored the resolution and then recessed the House for a long weekend, until Tuesday, July 13.
In other words, Democrats were given a window of opportunity. And, unsurprisingly, they took it.
On Monday, July 12, reports began to swirl that Democrats were indeed imminently planning on leaving the state. But in the several hours after those reports were first made public and when the Democrats’ two private planes took off from Austin-Bergstrom Airport, there was silence from Abbott, Phelan, and Republican leadership at large. Bragging on social media, Democrats were allowed to load up on a bus and fly to D.C. in broad daylight as Texans watched it all unfold.
In fact, it was only after they were officially “wheels up” that Abbott and Phelan issued statements on the matter.
But while Abbott has been publicly calling for punitive measures to punish Democrats—such as stripping their committee chairmanships and even suggesting he could declare their seats vacant and hold special elections to replace them—Phelan’s response has been tame in comparison.
After it was made official on Tuesday morning that the House lacked a quorum, Phelan finally entertained a motion for a “call of the House,” locking the doors and directing the sergeant-at-arms to send for absent members “under warrant for arrest if necessary.”
So far, however, that appears to be all Phelan is willing to do. He has so far claimed that he does not have the power to remove members from their committee positions. And he has stated that the only business the House can do while they wait is the daily pledges and prayer.
Some, however, have disagreed with Phelan’s assertion. Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi, who himself is a former state lawmaker, took to Twitter to say the speaker explicitly does have the power to remove any committee chair he has appointed and that the House can compel attendance “under such penalties as each House may provide.”
Yet day two of the standoff came to a close with no such motions even attempted. (Phelan has, however, requested that Democrats return their $221 daily per diem.)
Meanwhile, Democrats have held multiple press conferences and media appearances in the past couple of days, railing against Republican efforts to safeguard the integrity of the ballot box.
And what about State Rep. Joe Moody, Phelan’s “No. 2” guy? He is among those leading the movement.
There are currently 25 days left in the 30-day special session. And when this one ends, Gov. Abbott can call repeated sessions until the Democrats eventually decide to return home. But while it may not be clear how this saga will conclude, the record shows it began with enablement from Republicans and the leadership they have—so far—been slow to criticize.