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TX House Passes Hotly Debated Rules Package

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The Texas House of Representatives passed a rules package on Wednesday | Image by Karin Dyer/The Dallas Express

AUSTIN — After contentious debate and allegations of political underhandedness, the Texas House of Representatives passed a rules package on Wednesday that will continue to allow Democrats to hold committee chairs.

Led by Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who was re-elected as speaker the previous day, the House considered amendments to the rules, including one that would ban members of the minority party from being appointed as chairs of committees.

Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) began explaining the resolution, but Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) interrupted from the room’s back microphone to object to holding the vote on Wednesday.

Slaton then moved to postpone the vote to tomorrow and adjourn until 10:30 a.m. to allow people traveling to the capitol to arrive, as it was initially expected for the rules resolution to receive a Thursday vote.

Speaker Phelan sought to prevent Slaton from making the motion, suggesting that Slaton was not recognized to make such a motion and that he would have to do so from the front microphone after consulting with the parliamentarian.

When Slaton asked to use the front microphone, Phelan told Slaton, “You can come down here, and we can talk about it.”

After discussion at the speaker’s dais, other representatives rose and pointed out that the rules resolution had been handled on the first Wednesday in several recent sessions.

Phelan himself stood and pointed out that before the election of Slaton, many of the rules debates happened on Wednesday instead of Thursday and that he had never made any promises about when the discussion would occur this session.

Penalizing Being Absent Without Leave

When the regular order of business resumed, Rep. Hunter entered an amendment to institute punishments for members who are absent without leave, including in instances of an intentional quorum break. Some such penalties included “fines as provided …; payment of costs incurred by the sergeant-at-arms; reprimand; censure; or expulsion.”

If a member is deemed to be absent without leave for the purpose of hindering the business of the House, that member would be fined $500 per day in addition to other fines.

Reps. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), and Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) raised concerns about the process and limitations for expulsion in the case of a quorum break. Dutton was specifically concerned about whether or not the House would vote to expel a member before a quorum was restored.

After back-and-forth questions, Hunter assured Dutton that the expulsion procedures would follow the constitutional limitations. The Texas Constitution requires that at least two-thirds of the House must vote for expulsion, meaning that bipartisan support would be needed to expel any member.

Hunter’s amendment passed with 87 yeas and 59 nays.

Amendments to Ban Democrat Chairs

Rep. Slaton then proposed an amendment to functionally ban Democrats from chairing committees as has been the general practice. Reps. Mark Dorazio (R-Helotes), Nate Schatzline (R-Fort Worth), Richard Hayes (R-Corinth), and Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) co-sponsored the amendment.

The amendment read, “If, at the time the speaker announces the membership of committees, the members of one political party constitute a majority of the membership of the House, the speaker shall designate a member of that party to serve as chair of each committee.”

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Lake Worth) then raised a point of order which was extensively debated at the speaker’s dais. The point of order claimed that Slaton’s amendment contradicted the added section to the housekeeping resolution that passed earlier that morning.

Rep. Will Metcalf (R-Conroe) had introduced the housekeeping resolution, which limited the way House money could be spent, stipulating that “a House member, committee, officer, or employee may not use or direct the use of any House resources to further any political purpose.”

The housekeeping resolution passed with 147 voting yea while only Slaton and Tinderholt voted nay.

Geren’s point of order claimed that to explicitly differentiate between parties in the rules of the House would be to allocate House resources in a way that would further political purposes.

“The point of order is well taken and sustained,” Phelan decided, killing Slaton’s amendment.

Rep. Tinderholt then submitted an amendment that sought to require any committee chair to “submit to the speaker an affidavit stating that the chair believes that there are only two genders.”

Another point of order was raised against this apparent attempt to discourage Democrat chairs. This point of order was similarly sustained because the amendment sought to compel speech on a substantive issue.

Slaton rose to submit another amendment with the same aim of limiting the ability of the speaker to appoint Democrat chairs by listing certain committees which had to have a majority party chair. Geren again raised a point of order, which Phelan sustained.

Slaton filed another amendment that would require committee chairs to file an affidavit stating whether or not they supported Marxism. In a scene already repeated several times, Geren raised a point of order, and Phelan sustained it.

In a fourth attempt to limit the powers of Democrat chairs, Slaton offered an amendment that asked that “the chair of a committee may not enforce a speech code that restricts the use of biologically correct pronouns.” Like the other amendments, a point of order was raised and sustained.

Background to the Debate

Support had been growing within the state Republican Party to dispense the tradition of allowing Democrats to chair certain committees, with over 81% of Republican respondents calling on the legislature to do so in a 2022 poll.

Banning Democratic chairs is among the legislative priorities listed by the state party.

Texas Republican Party Communications Director James Wesolek told The Dallas Express, “We’re advocating that they put an amendment into the rules that says members of the minority party are not able to hold committee chairmanships.”

When asked if the party was worried about changing the practice if the GOP ever becomes the minority, Wesolek responded, “If we do our jobs, it’s not a concern, if Texas Republicans continue to lead and be a shining city on the hill that so many of us across the country look to, there’s no reason for us to be worried about that.”

However, Phelan, who was elected as Speaker of the House with the help of every single Democratic vote, has been vocal in his support for appointing Democratic chairs. Other Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Allen), have sparred with Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi over the practice.

Before the vote, some Republicans alleged that Phelan’s choice to bring the motion to the floor on Wednesday instead of Thursday was an attempt to prevent grassroots activists from being in attendance.

Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City), who voted against Phelan in the speakership decision, tweeted on Tuesday, “In his first act of defiance to Republican voters, @DadePhelan has decided to move up the rules debate to tomorrow.”

“He and his loyalists know that hundreds of Republican activists are coming in to watch the rules debate on Thursday,” the GOP representative claimed.

Despite this, there were still a number of people sitting in the gallery with red shirts that read “Ban Democrat Chairs.”

Others, including Speaker Phelan, defended holding the rules debate on Wednesday, pointing to the fact that the rules debate occurred before Thursday in the 83rd (2013), 85th (2017), and 86th (2019) sessions.

However, the most recent regular session, the 87th (2021), did have the rules debate on Thursday.

Other Actions

Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), Rep. Victoria Neave Criado (D-Mesquite), and Rep. Christina Morales (D-Houston) all offered amendments that pertained to the redistricting process. None of their proposed amendments passed.

Throughout the proceedings, Rep. Mike Schofield (R-Katy) offered two amendments (see the first and the second) that he argued would help members protect their bills from various procedural items that could kill the bill. Both amendments failed.

Tinderholt submitted several amendments, including one to require committee votes on bills at the author’s request, to prevent the stalling of a bill in the calendars committee, to reduce the votes needed to debate vacating the speakership, to prohibit the use of preferred pronouns, and to forbid committee chairs from being from counties with a population over 2 million. None passed.

Slaton also filed other amendments pertaining to House broadcasts, scheduling votes on impeachment, drag performances in front of minors, and “child gender modification.” All of which were defeated either by outright vote or points of order.

A complete list of amendments can be viewed here.

Ultimately, the rules package passed with 123 votes against 19 nays. The House then adjourned until 10:30 a.m. the following day.

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