When he was selected to serve as a figurehead Speaker of the Texas House by an insurgent faction of Democrats and liberal Republicans, Joe Straus promised to deliver a “member-driven” House. But Straus has proven throughout his tenure in the Speaker’s chair that he is no different, and indeed much worse, than his predecessor in his abuse of power.
On Friday, House Bill 910 by State Rep. Larry Phillips (R–Sherman) came to the floor. The bill’s purpose was to “provide for the open carry of a holstered handgun” but the bill limited that right to Texans who have acquired what is now called a concealed handgun license. Conservative State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R–Bedford) had long announced his intent to bring an amendment to HB 910 that would have removed the licensure requirements, and allowed a person to carry openly or concealed as a matter of right – what he and others call “constitutional carry.”
While the odds of the amendment winning approval of the body were long, and members anticipated that opponents might challenge the amendment on a point of order, what happened on Friday should outrage members on both sides of the aisle.
Rather than allow Stickland to lay out his amendment, his opponents an opportunity to officially challenge the amendment on a point of order, and the two sides to argue their respective cases, Straus decided sua sponte to deny Stickland the opportunity to even lay out his measure in front of the body.
In a series of parliamentary inquiries brought from the back microphone, Stickland challenged Speaker Pro Tempore Dennis Bonnen (R–Angleton) and discovered that Straus, working with House Parliamentarian Chris Griesel, had decided on his own that the amendment to allow open carry of a holstered handgun without a license was not “germane” to the open carry bill.
The implications of the Speaker’s refusal to recognize Stickland’s amendment were immense. If the amendment had been laid out, and challenged by an opponent on a point of order, Stickland would have been able to make his case to the Speaker and parliamentarian, and potentially appeal an unfavorable ruling by the chair to the members of the body.
In fact, Stickland pointed to a document his office had prepared on the question (the memorandum was later submitted for printing in the House Journal). But like a child who puts his fingers in his ears and hums when told something he doesn’t want to hear, Straus and Griesel’s tactic allowed them to ignore Stickland’s arguments.
More importantly, this unusual tactic seemed designed to skirt two important House rules.
First, Rule 14, Sec. 8 requires the Speaker to explain his ruling on a point of order within 24 hours. By not allowing Stickland to even lay out his amendment, it is unclear if Straus and Griesel will ever have to explain why they refused, and given the inconsistency of their application of the germaneness rule, it would have been extremely difficult to do so.
Stickland was not the only conservative member shut out from bringing a proper amendment on Friday. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R–Irving) claimed Saturday on Facebook that he was also blocked from bringing an amendment to address the 4th Amendment implications of HB 910 and whether persons open carrying a handgun under the bill would be subject to a “papers please” stop merely for having a handgun on their hip.
However, the Speaker did allow the Democrats to bring an amendment that was exactly opposite of Rinaldi’s. Democrat Chris Turner (D–Arlington) was allowed to lay out and debate an amendment that would have given police explicit authority to stop an open carrier. Even more outrageous, Straus and Griesel allowed a Democrat amendment that would have allowed for the licensed carry of knives.
Straus and Griesel also allowed State Rep. Allen Fletcher (R–Tomball) to lay out an amendment to legalize the ability to carry a concealed handgun on campuses of public universities – completely unrelated to the topic of legalizing the open carry of a handgun. Mr. Fletcher withdrew his amendment after Democrats quietly threatened to break quorum if the House had taken a vote on his proposal.
So given how deliberations on the bill were going, it would have been difficult for the Speaker’s team to articulate a legitimate argument consistent with House precedent on why the Stickland amendment on open carry was not germane, yet questionable Democrat amendments and concealed campus carry were allowable.
Thankfully for Texas gun owners, though again showing the hypocrisy of Joe Straus and Chris Griesel, the Speaker allowed Rinaldi’s amendment to be offered on third reading by Democrat State Rep. Harold Dutton (Houston), a sometimes ally of conservatives on civil liberties issues. The amendment was adopted with only six members in opposition. It was again an indictment of the Straus speakership that a liberal Democrat was allowed to bring an important amendment protecting the 4th Amendment rights of Texans, while a conservative Republican was blocked from offering the same language.
Second, the Speaker’s tactics on Friday may set a dangerous precedent for whether these types of decisions of the chair can be appealed to the body. Explicitly under House Rule 1, Sec. 9, the Speaker’s ruling on a point of order can be appealed to the members. It is unclear if Straus’s informal decision and refusal to recognize Stickland could have been appealed. If not, the only remedy in such a situation would be for the members to remove Straus as Speaker.
These incidents, as well as other egregious derelictions of duty by the Speaker (including refusing to refer Senate bills to House committees), show that Joe Straus has no problem running a lawless and rudderless body. While the Senate continues to work hard towards enacting meaningful legislation for the benefit of Texans, the Speaker and his team show no urgency, nor interest, in responding to the demands of the grassroots.
Eventually every House member who re-elected Straus will answer for the body of work they put forth this session.