January 24, 2009
Texans have a right to ask why state government is failing them.
Why are tuition, insurance and utility bills skyrocketing? Why do tax bills seem so unfair and the budget so uncertain? Why are roads, schools and other pieces of infrastructure so increasingly inadequate? And why are so many state agencies defined by their scandals?
The Texas Senate may have provided an inadvertent answer last week, wasting enormous energy and good will on a question that has nothing to do with the challenges Texans now face — how to preserve the political power of its increasingly partisan majority.
The opening debate made news because of the passions it stoked and the rhetoric it sparked. In reality, it revolved around a technical parliamentary question — known as the two-thirds rule — and a voting rights issue that, while important, has nothing to do with the challenges bearing down on many Texans.
The two-thirds rule simply requires two thirds of the Senate to give their permission for any bill to be brought up for consideration. If you run the phrase “Texas Senate two-thirds rule” through Google, the first thing that comes up is a page from the state’s own Legislative Reference Library Web site, which explains:
“Though it has been set aside on rare occasions, this practice — known as the ‘two-thirds rule’ — has been an honored tradition in the Senate. Among other things, it is generally acknowledged that the Senate’s two-thirds rule fosters civility, a willingness to compromise, and a spirit of bipartisanship.”
The last time the Senate sacrificed the two-thirds rule, it was to pass a bitterly partisan redistricting plan concocted by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay to grab power and defeat senior Democratic members of Congress who could now be doing so much to help this state in Washington.
And as of last week, the two-thirds rule will almost certainly be sacrificed again in the coming weeks — this time to pass a bill that would make it harder for many legal, registered Texas voters to cast ballots in elections.
On almost a strict party-line vote, the Senate declared that the two-thirds rule will not apply to bills that would require Texans to produce certain forms of identification before voting.
Such a provision is known as “voter ID” or “voter suppression.” I oppose it — not because it could influence the outcome of an election, but because it would make voting unusually and unfairly difficult for some Texans whose lives simply don’t require drivers’ licenses, passports, utility bills or other pieces of bureaucratic confetti that many of us take for granted.
Such documentation may spell out what privileges people enjoy in society — driving a car, renting movies or cashing checks; it says nothing about the rights bestowed on them by the Constitution.
No one wants election fraud. If fraud occurs, it can be dealt with harshly in ways that don’t deny people access to voting.
There’s no evidence that voter ID legislation would address real election fraud issues. There is, however, ample proof that such legislation tends to target minority and elderly voters — those who tend to vote Democrat.
Not coincidentally, these bills are a pet cause for many conservative ideologues, and they consistently spark a political firestorm in the Legislature. Such partisan battles are exactly what the two-thirds rule is designed to avoid, and the rule has been largely responsible for keeping these voting infringements from being passed by the Senate.
So, unable to win under the rules, Republicans decided to change them. A corruption of the two-thirds rule was rammed through a bitterly divided Senate.
In its place, they created a special class of bills to which the normal rules don’t apply. This special class doesn’t include anything that would create jobs, provide affordable health care, lower insurance bills, protect the environment or send more Texans to college.
No, this special class includes only the most purely partisan bills aimed at preserving power. This class defies cooperation and resists coalitions, and it protects bills that would rightly die in the consensus-driven process of the Texas Senate.
The vote was a decisive victory of politics over policy. It creates an awful precedent for Republicans and Democrats. And it leaves a stain of bitter partisanship.