Before concluding business Monday evening, after waiting almost 90 minutes beyond the scheduled start time for an elusive quorum, two House Republican lawmakers asked procedural questions of House Speaker Dade Phelan on how to go about ensuring a quorum is maintained.
Motioning for a Call of the House
Republican State Rep. Bryan Slaton (Royse City) asked a series of questions about possible procedural motions in efforts to retain a quorum.
Slaton asked, “Mr. Speaker, would it be in order to move a Call of the House to maintain a quorum to make sure that Democrats do not abandon the chamber again?”
Phelan responded, “You would have to be recognized by the Chair, and you would have to make a motion from the front microphone.”
To which Slaton replied, “When is the next opportunity that motions would be in order?”
Phelan said, “Mr. Slaton, you are going to have to come down front to ask that question. That is not something that can happen at the back microphone.”
Slaton continued, “Is it in order for me to move to suspend all necessary rules to layout HR71, a resolution mandating that the back mic never be turned off while the House is in session or a call of the house?”
“Mr. Slaton, once again, to make a motion like that, you must be recognized by the Chair at the front microphone,” Phelan responded.
Slaton did in fact file a bill that would amend the House Rules of Procedure to ensure that the back microphone could not be turned off, thus allowing lawmakers to ask questions of the Chair while both the House is in session and under a Call of the House, by which the doors to the House chamber are locked awaiting absent lawmakers. That resolution was not referred to any House committee upon conclusion of House business Monday.
“Does the Texas House currently have a Speaker Pro Tem?” Slaton asked. He continued, “Is there a House Rule that mandates the Speaker appoint a Democrat as the Speaker Pro Tem?”
Phelan responded, “That’s not a proper parliamentary inquiry Mr. Slaton.”
Slaton replied, “Mr. Speaker, I’m asking about House Rules.”
Phelan said, “Mr. Slaton, under a long-standing precedent in House Rules, the chair does not entertain general questions about House rules.”
Changing the rules
While bills and resolutions normally go through a committee process that can take a significant amount of time, Republican State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (Arlington) asked if he could make a motion to bring the bill to the floor that day, in a rarely-used process called “Committee of the Whole.”
He then asked whether it would be in order for him to request permission to suspend rules to refer House Resolution 72, authored by State Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton), to that Committee of the Whole in efforts to maintain a quorum.
The resolution, if passed, would add to the House Rules of Procedure mechanisms for absent lawmakers to be removed as chairman or vice-chairman from any standing House Committee if they are unexcused for an absence of more than 7 cumulative days in a regular legislative session, unexcused for absence of more than 3 cumulative days in a special legislative session, or absent for more than 14 cumulative days “with the intent to cause a lack of quorum” during the preceding 6 months.
It also specifies that any absent lawmaker who does not return under a “Call of the House” within 72 hours automatically has their chairmanships and vice-chairmanships taken away.
If added to the House Rules, it would only require an additional 25 lawmakers to support such a motion, assuming the appropriate notice is given by the lawmaker making the original motion. The resolution also continues on to add other provisions to the House Rules which include fines of the absent lawmakers per diem as well as stripping them of their seniority privileges without a way to reinstate them.
Phelan responded by indicating that it was not an appropriate parliamentary inquiry, and as such Tinderholt approached the front dais to discuss with Phelan and the House Parliamentarians.
A short time thereafter, the resolution was referred to the House Administration Committee where it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
“I believe it is important to hold ourselves accountable,” Tinderholt told Texas Scorecard, “ When I read Article III, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution, I believe we have the authority to compel absent members by any penalties necessary. My constituents want people held accountable for wasting tax dollars. This is how we police ourselves.”
The section of the Texas Constitution Tinderholt alludes to says:
Sec. 10. QUORUM; ADJOURNMENTS FROM DAY TO DAY; COMPELLING ATTENDANCE. Two-thirds of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each House may provide.
So What is Next?
There are less than two weeks left in the ongoing special legislative session. The House is currently operating under what appears to be a somewhat elusive quorum, something that 32 House Democrat lawmakers reminded everyone in a joint statement is “not perpetual” on Monday.
Thus far, nothing has been done to ensure that lawmakers maintain a quorum. They can currently leave as they please. Similarly, nothing has been done to compel absent lawmakers to return either. Once the House achieved a quorum on Thursday of last week it ended the existing Call of the House and the existing warrants for their arrest.
Those same lawmakers still retain their chairmanships, vice-chairmanships, committee membership, and seniority privileges.
Various House committees have already considered some of the bills on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda, but as of now, nothing has been scheduled for consideration of the overall House. The order by which House Republican leadership prioritizes bills to be considered likely aids in the already tenuous position they find themselves in, as it remains possible lawmakers break quorum again if they do not approve of a bill that gets considered.