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A trio of redistricting editorials

Another unsigned editorial in the Chron denouncing the special session on redistricting, which begins tomorrow. They’ve been pretty consistent on this, and for a change they note that they editorialized against Democratic gerrymandering back in 1991. (No, I’m not going to search through their archives to verify or contradict this.)

This op-ed piece talks about the effect of redistricting here and elsewere on democracy:

Does redistricting make a difference? You bet it does. Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? That’s right – Republicans drew the district lines before the election.

In many states, one party stuck it to the other in redistricting. Take Florida, where Democrats are strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race. But with full control of drawing the district lines, Republicans hold an overwhelming 18 of 25 U.S. House seats. In 2002 Maryland Democrats picked up two of the state’s Republicans’ four U.S. House seats as a direct result of redistricting.

However dangerous to democracy such partisan power grabs are, however, the problem is more fundamental and sweeping. The real story of the last redistricting cycle was that both parties generally colluded in a crass way to take on their real enemy: the voters. “Incumbent protection” was raised to a whole new level.

The result was that in 2002, just four incumbents – the fewest in history – lost to nonincumbent challengers. In California, every single incumbent won by landslide margins. It was no coincidence that Democratic incumbents forked over $20,000 apiece to the redistricting consultant to draw them a safe seat, and that the consultant was the brother of one of the incumbents. To buy their cooperation, Republican incumbents were given safe seats too. California voters were the real losers.

The authors make a plea for “nonpartisan redistricting commissions”, one of those things that sounds nice but is rather hard to imagine existing in the real world. (Yes, I know, Iowa and Washington state have something like that. Unfortunately, in Texas I’d expect that the only nonpartisans you could find to participate would also be completely ignorant and apathetic about it.)

Finally, there’s this puzzling op-ed, which tries to make a case that both sides were wrong in the walkout but never cites any facts to support his argument:

The founders of Texas gathered together during a hot Texas summer in 1845 to craft the first constitution of the state of Texas. They crafted a very thoughtful system, which included the requirement of a quorum of two-thirds. A quorum is the number of legislators required to be present before the House can begin. While only a majority is needed to pass a bill, there must be at least two-thirds of the House present to open business. This ensures the majority may not gather in secret without the opportunity for the minority to join the debate. It also ensures that a catastrophe, such as losing a large number of legislators in an accident or war, does not afford a political opportunity to the majority who could meet quickly before replacement representatives were appointed.

Yet these writers of the Texas Constitution also realized that legislators making up the minority could easily subvert this process and misuse the quorum requirement by simply refusing to show up (for example, fleeing to Oklahoma). This would allow the requirement of a quorum to be used as a bargaining chip rather than its real purpose of ensuring open participation and debate.

So these wise men added a provision to the quorum requirement (then Article III, Section 12) which is still in place today. Article III, Section 10 of the current Texas Constitution states that a smaller number of legislators than the quorum may “compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each house may provide.”

Very simply, the Texas founders highly disapproved of intentionally being absent to avoid a quorum. They disapproved so much that they gave those legislators in attendance, though less than a quorum, great and expansive powers. The House members who are there may act “in such manner” and assess “such penalties” as they decide. Such expansive powers are rarely given — to anyone.

The Texas founders clearly thought this was important. To do nothing to compel attendance of absent legislators is tantamount to allowing our constitutional legislative process to be intentionally hijacked for the political gain of a small group. The remaining House members have a constitutional duty to have criminal arrest warrants issued to compel the return of the missing legislators and fine them severely if they don’t.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are heroes in the May debacle. It is not courage but dereliction of duty to refuse to show up for your constitutional obligations in the Legislature. Quorum is intended to ensure the full participation of all voices, not the tyranny of the minority.

It is also wrong, as the Republicans did, to stand idly by and do nothing to enforce our constitution or the democratic-republican forum of government it sets in place. All that is necessary for the destruction of our state constitution system is for good men and women to do nothing.

I suppose it’s possible that the men who wrote Texas’ Constitution might have this view of an intentional walkout, but I’m not going to take this author’s word for it if he can’t be bothered to scare up a quote or two in support of it. It seems to me that it’s equally valid to conclude that the authors of a system that deliberately weakened the powers of the executive and explicitly spelled out a means to prevent government business from proceeding might not have disapproved of the renegades’ actions.

As for the claims that the Republicans “stood idly by”, well, I guess this guy hasn’t been reading about all of the things that the DPS was ordered to do, from visiting prenatal wards to calling the Department of Homeland Security. Perhaps he’d have been mollified by an armed assault on the Ardmore Holiday Inn, but it seems to me that the GOP did everything it reasonably could – not to mention a few things it unreasonably could – to get the Democrats back. I suppose I could do a Google search on author Kelly Shackleford or his “Free Market Foundation” to see if he’s always this dense, but I have better things to do with my time.

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3 Comments

  1. Preston says:

    I would suggest that the reason for the provision in the Texas Constitution authorizing, in this case, the Republicans to use law enforcement personnel and procedures to “capture” the offending Democrats was included in the Constitution in order to facilitate the gathering of the legislators from the local saloons and bawdy houses. That makes more sense to me as a reason why the language was included.

  2. That would certainly be in character with the Lege, both then and now.

  3. Kyle says:

    While I am no Texas Constitution expert, I read that third editorial you cite and as best I could figure the persone writing it is a complete idiot. The person’s premise ie that “They disapproved so much that they gave those legislators in attendance, though less than a quorum, great and expansive powers. The House members who are there may act “in such manner” and assess “such penalties” as they decide.” is based I believe on a misinterpretation of the constitutional provision. The provision actually says:”Two-thirds of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each House may provide.”

    The key phrase is “as each House may provide” There is nothing in this provision that allows the reduced numbers to pass a new rule of enforcement, it allows them to use tools enforcement that the “House” previous put into place. Since this is exactly what happened (plus some extra) I suspect this interpretation is correct, though I have done no more research than the editorial writer.

    Over all it appeared to me that this was an incredible waste of ink.