May 10, 2011
I’ve done enough half-marathons and legislative sessions at this point to be able to speak at least somewhat intelligently on both of them. So trust me when I say that, in a lot of ways, they’re pretty similar.
First, they’re both very long, very hard, and completely exhausting.
Second, they remind me of how my dad used to tease me when I had something that hurt – like a skinned knee or a bumped head – and started crying and whining about it.
He’d act like he was really trying to be compassionate and consoling. He’d even sometimes take the body part that was hurting and squeeze it like he was trying to help (and, of course, would make it hurt worse). And he’d tell me in the most soothing tone, “Son, it’ll feel better when it stops hurting.”
I still remember the first time he said that to me. I was 5 or 6. Even at that age, I recall thinking, “Does he know what he just said?”
Well, we’re in the legislative session’s home stretch now. Folks are tired. Folks are getting grumpy. Folks are ready to be done.
And I keep thinking of my old man’s way of telling me that the pain would subside. That it would be okay soon.
But I keep coming back to a nagging, endless concern that this session is creating some really bad scars, and I don’t think it’s going to feel better any time soon.
But it wasn’t passed in the normal way. No, it has an additional taint. Those in control of the Senate had to latch onto a seldom-noticed rule allowing them to get around the traditional requirement that at least two-thirds of the senators must agree before a bill can be brought up for debate.
There’s a productive reason to follow this provision and practice, known by the insiders as “the Two-Thirds Rule.” It produces better results.
The rule isn’t, as some often wrongly suggest, about tradition. It’s even possible, as others say, that voters don’t care diddly about the Two-Thirds Rule itself. But every Texan cares about what the Two-Thirds Rule does substantively.
Government simply works better for everyone when the rule is followed. It’s the Golden Rule of governance – listen to others and work with them, even if they don’t share your point of view on an issue or share your party label.
And as we learned as kids, if you do that, they’ll probably listen to you and work with you, too.
It creates transparency by getting more people involved, helping constituencies avoid getting rolled over, and getting issues out in the open. It forces people to work together, breeding trust and creativity across lines of disagreement (some real and some no more than labels). It rejects dogma and replaces it with empathy. It rewards reason over rhetoric. And it helps keep folks from cutting in the lunch line, even when they’re bigger or stronger or louder.
Oh, and one more thing – the Two-Thirds Rule tends to block legislation that’s patently bad for Texas.
So why, if people really believe they’re doing right and are confident in their actions, do they resort to relatively unprecedented, potentially corrupting actions such as dodging the Two-Thirds Rule?
More than that, how would the budget have looked had it been crafted under a willingness to compromise, a desire to be inclusive of other views, a determination to be creative, and a spirit of bipartisanship?
My guess is that it would have had some of the basic reforms that the conservative Republican Chair of the Senate Finance Committee advocated on the first day of the session. It would have done a much, much better job funding critical priorities like schools and universities. And it would have at least put the state on a path for doing away with some of the debt, diversions and deception that have become such a growing threat to the state’s budget and economy.
But by exploiting their almost absolute power, those in control rammed down a rawly political budget that punishes teachers and children for the legislature’s mistakes. And it reforms almost none of the bad practices that helped put Texas in this position.
As I and many others have noted, the lone selling point for this budget seems to be that it’s better than the version put forward by the Texas House of Representatives, which takes most of the things that the Senate budget would hurt – and hurts them even worse.
Indeed, the Senate’s escapades from last week are probably mostly forgotten after this weekend’s antics in the House, during which “meltdown” became something of a technical legislative term.
This again begs the question: Why, if people really believe they’re doing right and are confident in their actions, do they resort to this stuff?
(By the way, on behalf of the Texas Senate, I suppose I should thank the House of Representatives. Between its thoroughly irresponsible budget priorities and behavior that might be politely described as “erratic,” the House has become that F-minus student that the Senate, after blowing a mid-term exam, is so relieved to tell its parents about.)
The final details of the budget will be hammered out, largely behind closed doors, over the next couple of weeks. Rest assured that barring some sort of miracle, the final version brought forward will be even tougher on school kids, parents, universities, hospitals or the uninsured than the Senate version.
And then legislators will vote, and there’s a good chance the legislature will dust itself off, catch its breath, and head home to sleep it off.
But middle-class Texans will be left to deal with the effects. And I really am concerned the hurting isn’t going to stop; it’s just begun.