Another way to put this: What can Beto do as Governor with a Republican legislature to make abortion laws less bad in Texas?
Toward the end of a virtual campaign event last month, one of Beto O’Rourke’s supporters asked how he would fulfill a key pledge: overturning the Texas ban on abortion.
The Legislature is virtually certain to remain under Republican control next year, leaving O’Rourke with no clear path to restore abortion access if he were to defeat Gov. Greg Abbott in November. But the Democratic nominee insisted he could bring lawmakers around.
“The shockwaves that it will send through this state to have a proudly, boldly pro-choice Democrat win for the first time in 32 years … will give us the political capital, the leverage we need to make sure that we can restore protections for every single woman in Texas to make her own decisions about her own body,” O’Rourke said.
He would also use “the power of the governor’s veto to stop bad ideas that are coming down the pike already,” he said.
But the proposals that most animate O’Rourke’s base — abortion rights, gun restrictions, expanded voting access — would likely face stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers, many of whom will return to Austin with no desire to rescind laws they passed as recently as last year.
Under those conditions, O’Rourke’s ability to enact core parts of his agenda would require a near-impossible level of legislative savvy, and unsparing use of the governor’s limited tools to influence the lawmaking process, such as vetoing bills and budget line items, veterans of Texas politics say.
On paper, Texas governors have limited power to shape public policy, with no cabinet and less control over state agencies than most of their counterparts around the country.
In recent years, though, Abbott and his predecessor, Rick Perry, have expanded their sway through sheer longevity — each staying in office long enough to stock boards and commissions with allies. Abbott has also used disaster orders to bypass the Legislature and steer policy on border security, the state’s COVID response, Texas National Guard deployments, and more.
Governors can also influence how laws are interpreted and enforced, through their appointments to state boards and commissions and directives to state agencies via executive order.
But governors cannot fire even their own appointees, let alone those of former governors, meaning O’Rourke would be stuck with thousands of Abbott appointees until their terms expire.
He could appoint their replacements between legislative sessions without immediate oversight, though each appointee would eventually require approval from the Republican-majority Senate once the Legislature is in session.
O’Rourke’s most potent tool to influence the lawmaking process would likely be his power to veto laws and spending he opposes, which governors have historically wielded as a powerful bargaining chip. O’Rourke said he would use that power, if necessary, to nix policies like private school vouchers, which Abbott has supported.
“Being able to stop that is incredibly important,” O’Rourke said. “But it also affords the governor leverage, in a broader sense, to bring people to the table and to make sure that we find that common ground, we get to that consensus, and we make some progress.”
The veto argument is one I was making about Wendy Davis back in 2014, before some of the worst anti-abortion legislation was passed. It’s still salient today, though the context is now very different. At the very least, it would be a hard stop against the vengeance fantasies of sociopaths like Briscoe Cain.
I think we can safely put aside any ideas about Beto reaching across the aisle for bipartisan compromise legislation on almost anything. Not that he wouldn’t sincerely try, and he could lead with things that under other circumstances might have genuine bipartisan appeal, like improving broadband access or drought mitigation. I just don’t believe that Republicans will move an inch even on things they have championed in the past to give him a legislative victory – their primary voters will not stand for it. I’d love to be too cynical about this, but it’s very much a prove-me-wrong situation. There may be some opportunities in the budget, where he will have line item veto power and where a lot of sausage making goes on behind closed doors, but don’t look for anything bigger than that. At least one chamber will need to be Democratic-majority before anything like that could realistically happen.
The use of executive power is an interesting possibility, and one where recent history is of much better use than past history. Abbott and Perry have absolutely pushed the bounds on what a Texas Governor can do, though to be fair they have had a docile and largely submissive legislature and a mostly compliant Supreme Court abetting them, neither of which Beto would have. All of the contradictions and hypocrisies that will result when those institutions suddenly decide that maybe there should be some limits on executive power won’t mean much given how little that kind of thing engages the public. All that said, Beto should look for every opportunity to push the envelope. He has little to lose by doing so.
Now, to complicate my earlier assertions about bipartisan legislation and compromise, we do have one slim possible avenue for such a thing.
Republican state Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville said Friday that he’d support a change to Texas’ abortion laws to allow victims of rape to legally obtain the procedure.
“If I get a chance to vote for an exception to rape, I will vote yes,” the East Texas senator said during a panel of Republican lawmakers at the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival. “I think instead of us telling women what to do, we should show our support for women of this state.”
Nichols is one of the first anti-abortion lawmakers to say he would support loosening the abortion laws when lawmakers meet in January.
Texas is competing against private companies who are willing to bus their employees out of state for “pregnancy care,” said Nichols. “And what are we doing?”
At the least, Nichols said, the state should provide a minimum of four weeks of paid maternity leave for state employees.
Nichols self-identifies as “pro-life” and has voted in favor of the state’s abortion laws, including the “fetal heartbeat” law that went into effect last September. The law prohibited most abortions after an ultrasound could detect cardiac activity in a embryo, about six weeks into a pregnancy. Nichols’ office did not immediately respond to questions about whether the senator would support any other exceptions to the abortion law, such as for incest.
I would point out that as an actual Senator, Nichols could author such a bill himself and perhaps even try to persuade his fellow Republicans to vote for it, including in the House, rather than wait for such a bill to magically appear before him. Crazy talk, I know, but it’s what I do. The question here, as above, is whether Nichols would still support such a bill even if it would then be sent to Governor O’Rourke for a signature, or whether that would be out of bounds as per the same politics I discussed above. My guess is the latter is more likely, but we’ll see. For what it’s worth, signing a bill that merely allowed for a rape exception to the current ban, without at least clarifying the “life and health of the mother” exception that is causing so much chaos and mayhem in the hospitals now would not be a clear win for Beto in my estimation. I believe it would garner at best grudging support from reproductive rights advocates, even if it was clearly the best we could get under the circumstances, just because it’s so incremental and would give some form of approval to that strict a legal regime. I could be wrong about that, I’m just saying that this stuff is more complicated than it looks and there are way too many variables to support making any kind of prediction. We’ll know a bit more after the election, but for now almost anything could happen. We need to do what we can to put ourselves in the best possible position to affect the outcome.