GOP Doubt Phelan’s Desire for Border Security

Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan
Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan | Image by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the runoff for his seat looms, Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan is under renewed fire from fellow Republicans who question whether he truly views border security as a crisis.

Over the past two years, Rep. Phelan (R-Beaumont) has been criticized for going head-to-head against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during the last legislative session and for his role as one of the leaders in the impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Now, Phelan’s actions surrounding a key piece of border security legislation, proposed by members of his own party during the last session, are coming under renewed scrutiny.

HB 20 would have established a Border Protection Unit to help staunch unlawful migration at the southern border. However, Phelan allowed the measure to be defeated through a legislative procedural tactic called a point of order, which was employed by a Democratic member of the House.

The point of order — argued by a House parliamentarian that Republicans charge is partisan — killed the bill for allegedly attempting to declare a war power that the states do not possess, though the subject of war or its declaration is nowhere in the bill’s text.

In a clip from May of 2023 — reposted in March to social media by Rep. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) — Phelan labors through the reading of the parliamentarian’s opinion and kills the bill accordingly, without hesitation.

“This is your legacy on border security. Killing the Border Protection Unit Act,” Harrison wrote, reposting the video in reply to a post from Phelan.

The arguments for invoking the self-defense provisions afforded to the states via Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution had gained steam among border security hawks even before Gov. Greg Abbott cited them in justifying his declaration of an invasion by unlawful migrants.

An analysis by Citizens for Renewing America (CRA) states that “Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 merely references a state war power that is analogous to the inherent natural right of defense. Moreover, the Texas legislature itself does not possess the legislative ability to invoke Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 as that power resides with the governor of a state alone.

“Thus, [HB 20] merely acknowledges already existing authorities, in a de facto ‘whereas’ manner, as the impetus for other statutory changes that were properly included in the summary of the bill.”

CRA’s report notes that the parliamentarian’s arguments should not have been a surprise to Phelan or his team, and the fact that they were not addressed earlier evinces that the speaker perhaps wanted to see the legislation fail.

Attorney Mitch Little, who served on Paxton’s impeachment defense team and is the Republican nominee for a House seat, told The Dallas Express, “House Bill 20 was killed on a Democrat point of order via the House parliamentarian. Dade Phelan could have saved it and chose not to.”

Phelan himself recently touted his role in passing SB 4 and claimed that more funding related to border security was secured under his stewardship than at any other time in history.

Phelan is facing a runoff against newcomer David Covey, only the second time a Speaker of the House has been in this situation in the state’s history. Covey challenged Phelan’s defense of his border security record, telling DX that, “Any progress on border security in Texas has been made in spite of Dade Phelan’s efforts to squash it. Phelan hand-picked an Obama Administration lawyer to run House proceedings, killing conservative legislation at every turn. HB 20 would have created a Border Protection Unit to police our southern border and protect Texas families. Dade Phelan chose to side with the Democrats to kill the bill.”

As for Phelan’s professed support for the bill that did pass, Covey had this to say: “SB4 is another example of Phelan’s liberal and weak approach on border security. He relentlessly criticized the border security bill, calling it ‘reckless’ and was the only Republican in either chamber not to vote for its passage in 2023.” 

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