With the 87th Legislative Session just around the corner, it is important that activists know the important real deadlines they’ll need to confront in order to ensure bills they are backing actually pass.
Under the Texas Constitution, bills and constitutional amendments must be referred to and passed by a committee in order to be eligible for passage on the House or Senate floor. The committee process is important for taking testimony and perfecting legislation before it comes up for passage. Unfortunately, the committee process can also be a serious hurdle to the passage of bills, and we often see good legislation die because it gets bottled up in committee.
Even when legislation has popular support and makes it out of committee, it sometimes moves forward in the process too late to actually make it to the floor for a vote. This can often result from a sleight of hand where a committee wants to take credit for supporting a bill but prevent it from actually passing by slow-walking it through the process. The savvy activist can combat these tactics by knowing the real deadlines in the legislative process and avoid being hoodwinked by duplicitous legislators.
A quick review of the basic House process
Filing and Committee Referral
Except for certain exceptions, bills must be filed during the first 60 days of session, by Friday, March 12. It is critical that bills be filed as quickly as possible because of the impending deadlines.
After a bill is filed in the House or after a bill passes the Senate and the House receives it, it undergoes what is called “first reading and referral” on the floor of the House. After that, it is sent to a House substantive committee, where it is typically the subject of a public hearing in which the public can testify or register their support or opposition. The bill is usually not voted on at that hearing, but at a “formal meeting” later on. This vote typically happens at least a week after the hearing and only after the author has informed the chairman of the committee that he has enough votes on the committee to report the bill favorably.
Calendars and Floor Votes
After being reported favorably from the substantive committee, the bill will go to one of two calendars committees. Members of the calendars committee set bills on a calendar in order to schedule debate and a vote on the House floor for a particular day. The intent is to achieve a steady workflow on the House floor and to avoid a backup of legislation, though the process is often abused to serve as a “gate-keeping” function. The first day of debate is called “second reading” and is the step where bills are typically amended. If, after debate, the bill is passed, it is taken up the next legislative day on “third reading” for final passage. After that, bills originating in the House are sent to the Senate to undergo a similar process. Bills received from the Senate and passed by the House are either sent to the governor or, if they have been changed in the House from the original Senate version, sent back to the Senate so the two chambers can work through a process to iron out their disagreements.
House Rules and constitutional deadlines
Windows of Opportunity
In a 140-day legislative session, overcoming all of these steps can sometimes be a staggering task. Indeed, under the Texas Constitution, the first 30 days of each session is set apart for the filing of bills, and the next 30 days are set apart for committee hearings, leaving only 80 days at the end of the session for debate and floor passage of bills. That window is narrowed even more under the current House Rules, which state that House bills and House joint resolutions must be passed on second reading by the 122nd day of the session. So that 80-day window is currently narrowed to just 62 days, from March 13 through May 13.
When the clock strikes midnight on the 122nd day, Thursday, May 13, all House bills that have not been voted forward by the House are immediately dead.
One quick caveat: The House Rules can be suspended by a two-thirds super-majority vote. So, all of the deadlines described here could hypothetically be suspended at any time, though that is rarely, if ever, done on contentious matters due to the difficulty of attaining a two-thirds super-majority.
Rules vs. Reality
A quick look at the last page of the House Rules will provide a calendar page with certain practical deadlines calculated based on certain layout requirements contained in the Rules. That calendar page will tell you that in order to be debated and voted forward on the 122nd day of the session, a House bill needs to be voted out of its House committee by the 119th day. This is technically true, but completely unrealistic based on the processes and practices common in the House.
Each session, there is a logjam in the final week leading up to the House bill passage deadline, in which the daily House calendars get longer, and longer, and longer. Then they are often supplemented to add even more bills. The items listed on each calendar are too many to be reached in a given day, and so they spill over to the top of the next day’s calendar as unfinished business. It is common for time to expire on the 122nd day with the House still debating bills that were originally listed on a calendar for the 119th or 120th day. In fact, the prospect of actually reaching bills on the general calendar set for the 122nd day is quite ludicrous under current House custom, and placement of a bill on that calendar is (or at least should be) considered an insult. Placement of a popular bill on the final general calendar is a way for duplicitous politicians to claim they intended to pass something that they knew would never be reached for debate before the deadline expired.
So, in order to pass, a bill typically needs to be placed on the general calendar for Monday, May 10.
So, with all of this in mind, what are the real deadlines?
A House bill needs to be voted out of committee by the 116th day, Friday, May 7, in order to have any chance of being printed and reported to the calendars committee in time to be scheduled for a vote on the May 10 general calendar, or earlier.
Practically, even that deadline has proven to be too late. A bill realistically needs to be out of committee by the 108th day of the session, Thursday, April 29, in order to make it to the floor on time. Records from past sessions show that bills passed out of committee after that deadline rarely make it through the calendars committee and to the floor for a vote.
Ideally, a bill should be voted out of committee by the 98th day of session, Monday, April 19, in order to ensure plenty of time for passage. Bills that pass on the floor typically move out of committee by that date. And if the calendars committee is expected to be hostile to a bill, that deadline gets bumped all the way back to the 88th day of session, Friday, April 9, in order to allow sufficient time for the members to attempt to invoke the rules allowing the placement of a bill directly on a calendar after it has languished in a calendars committee for more than 30 days. Only if a bill leaves committee before April 9 can members use the tools available to them to ensure a vote on it despite resistance in the calendars committee.
That’s a lot of dates to remember, but April 29 is the one that activists should burn into their minds. A House bill needs to be passed out of its House committee by that date if its supporters want any reasonable shot at passing it. That means that the committee hearing on the bill needs to be scheduled by at least mid-April if it is going to stay on track.
The Senate is a much more flexible body and has imposed far fewer deadlines on itself. But because of the nature of the House deadlines, some practical Senate deadlines are worth considering. The House imposes a deadline on itself for the second reading passage of Senate bills, as well. That deadline is the 134th day of session, Tuesday, May 25. Most of the Senate bills that will be passed by the House will be passed between the 124th and the 134th days. In order to make it into that flurry of activity, Senate bills ideally need to be in the House and moving through the committee process by the early part of May. Those bills that are sent over in the last two weeks rarely make it through the process in time for passage.
To have a legitimate chance to pass out of the House chamber:
- A House bill must be filed by Friday, March 12, and preferably much sooner.
- A House bill must be voted out of its House committee by Thursday, April 29.
- A House bill must be scheduled for its “second reading” on the House general calendar for Monday, May 10.
With such tight deadlines, it is imperative that activists demand hearings on the bills they support as quickly as possible after committees are assigned. Hard work must be put in during February and March if the bills are going to avoid being obstructed by the logjam in May.