On the third day of the 84th legislative session, the Texas House is set to take up a rules resolution, which if adopted, would make permanent an investigatory committee with an Orwellian name and draconian powers.

The proposal, House Resolution 4, is scheduled for debate Thursday morning at 9am after being filed just 24 hours earlier. The resolution contains a proposal rolling the much maligned Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations – the committee which has attacked whistleblowing UT regent Wallace Hall — into an existing standing committee called the General Investigating and Ethics Committee.

The new committee, named the General Investigating, Transparency in Government Operations, and Ethics Committee, would gain broad new authority to “ensur[e] that an appointed officer is acting in the best interests of the state agency or institution for which the officer is appointed,” investigate the “operation of … agencies of the judicial and executive branches of state government and affiliated entities, foundations, or related support groups” and to “propose articles of impeachment.”

Under the standard of the proposed rules, the committee would have jurisdiction to target for investigation or impeachment state employees and officers who, despite acting in the best interest of the people of Texas and our constitution, nonetheless advocate budget cuts or other limits to the power of their state agencies.

Worse, under proposed Rule 4, Section 12, the new committee would be given blanket authority to examine witnesses and conduct all of its deliberations and debates in closed session, away from public scrutiny. Further, by giving the committee broad authority to conduct impeachment investigations, the new rule would appear to allow the Chairman of the committee to initiate investigations without any scrutiny from the public, the press, or even fellow members of the House. Investigations could take place for months or years without any notice to members of the legislature, or the accused.

There also does not appear to be any limit in place to ensure that investigations by the committee comply with constitutional requirements of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Coupled with the doctrine of legislative immunity, it appears unlikely persons targeted by the committee would have judicial recourse.

Governor Perry is scheduled to address a joint session of the House and Senate in the House chamber Thursday afternoon and this accommodation has limited the time for debate on the rules resolution. Unless some compromise is struck, or the resolution delayed, it would appear that House Leadership is prepared to ram through the draconian new rules without giving members an opportunity for full debate.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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