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January 15th, 2021:

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery, or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

See here for some background. The rules are codified in HR4, and you can see a long Twitter thread about the housekeeping rules that were the preliminaries for all this here; note that some of the proposed amendments were later withdrawn. One of the two House members who got up to some mischief but was roundly rejected by the rest of the chamber. I mean, when Briscoe Cain is speaking eloquently for tradition and bipartisanship, you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

Ken Paxton couldn’t be more on brand if he tried

News item: Texas laws protecting whistleblowers don’t apply to Attorney General Ken Paxton, his agency argues in bid to quash lawsuit. Who among us didn’t already know that Ken Paxton doesn’t think the law applies to him?

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s Office is attempting to fight off efforts by four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in their lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed Attorney General Ken Paxton was breaking the law.

The agency is arguing that Paxton is “not a public employee” and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, which aims to protect government workers from retaliation when they report superiors for breaking the law.

Four former Paxton aides claim they were fired in retaliation for telling authorities they believed Paxton had done illegal favors for a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.

In seeking reinstatement and other financial damages, the whistleblowers want to question Paxton himself under oath, as well as Brent Webster, his top deputy at the attorney general’s office, and Brandon Cammack, a Houston lawyer Paxton hired to investigate complaints made by Paul in what aides say was a favor to the donor. They also issued subpoenas to Paul’s company and a woman alleged to have been Paxton’s mistress.

[…]

The whistleblowers sought to question Paxton, Webster and Cammack under oath as soon as next week. Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, accepted the subpoenas for both World Class and the woman, court documents show. She could not be reached for comment and Wynne did not return a request for comment.

But in a filing last week, the attorney general’s office asked the judge to quash the depositions and the subpoenas, and prevent the whistleblowers from conducting any discovery.

“The OAG is doing everything they can muster to avoid having Ken Paxton answer basic questions under oath about the facts,” said Carlos Soltero, an attorney for one of the whistleblowers.

Instead, the agency said, the Travis County judge should dismiss the case entirely on procedural grounds.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — the basis for the lawsuit — is designed to provide protection for public employees who, in good faith, tell authorities they believe their superiors are breaking the law. But the attorney general’s office claims the agency cannot be sued under the law because Paxton is an elected official.

“The Attorney General is neither a governmental entity nor a public employee and, thus, the Whistleblower Act does not extend protection to reports of unlawful conduct made against the Attorney General personally,” the agency argued. “The Act does not apply… for reports made about actions taken personally by the elected Attorney General.”

Comparing Paxton’s authority to that of the president of the United States, the agency claimed that the attorney general had the right to fire the employees, despite their claims of retaliation.

Under that theory, “he’s saying that elected officials aren’t accountable” for violating the Whistleblower Act, said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases.

“It appears that General Paxton is trying to get off on a technicality that doesn’t exist,” he added.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything clever to add here, just that I hope this defense is as successful as his lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election was.