In the most detailed public glimpse yet at how the 2021 legislative session might play out during a pandemic, the chair of the committee that handles administrative operations in the Texas House told a group of lobbyists Tuesday that masks may be required in all public parts of the Texas Capitol and that a limit could be placed on the number of people allowed inside the building.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, listed a number of details during a presentation to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbyist and government affairs group. He also said that the House was looking at remote voting options for the chamber’s 150 members, which would allow lawmakers to vote on bills from elsewhere inside the building if they decide to not be present on the floor.
Geren said people entering the Capitol during the session will likely be tested and that lawmakers might require visitors to schedule appointments before arriving. They can limit the risks, he said, but can’t expect to completely prevent COVID-19 cases.
“We’re going to plan for an outbreak in the Capitol,” he said. “I think we have to.”
The Senate, he said, is having its own chamber-specific conversations over what protocols should be in place. Spokespeople for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Later Tuesday, Geren told The Texas Tribune that details he shared at the event are not set in stone — and emphasized that “there’s nothing in concrete yet, and there won’t be for a while.”
Geren is a member of a workgroup tapped by state Rep. Dade Phelan, the next likely House speaker, to make recommendations on legislative operations during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the ideas were being shared with a separate group Phelan recently created to solicit input on potential changes to the lower chamber’s rules.
“We won’t know until we adopt the rules,” Geren said, “and the rules are being talked about now.”
There’s more, and you should read the rest. What the Lege can do may be constrained by the state constitution, which among other things mandates that the session be open to the public. You can already watch the legislature online, as each day’s events are streamed live, but would that pass muster if it’s the only option? I’m sure there are lawyers pondering that now. You can expect mask wearing to be a tiresome flashpoint, as professional jackasses like Briscoe Cain have already stated their intention (repeated in this story) to not wear masks or require any visitors to their office to wear them. We’ll see how contentious the rule-setting process is.
(I should note, by the way, that Charlie Geren’s bio page says that he is 71 years old. Preparing for a COVID outbreak at the Capitol is going to be a bigger deal for some folks than for others. And let us not forget the staffers, the security guards, the maintenance and cafeteria and groundskeeping and other workers who will also be affected by the rules the Lege adopts, and the shameful indifference of the likes of Briscoe Cain.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol:
Nine months before the November election, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made headlines by suggesting that if Republicans lost their supermajority in the Senate, he would pursue a bold procedural move: further lowering the threshold that is required to bring legislation to the floor.
Now that the election has come and gone — and the GOP indeed lost its supermajority — it remains to be seen how serious Patrick is about the idea, which would strip Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.
The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, has not made any known public comments since the election about the potential rule change, and senators are being tight-lipped or saying they have not heard anything. The uncertainty comes less than a month and a half before the Legislature gavels in for the 2021 session — and each chamber takes up its rules as one of the first orders of business.
Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection loss of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, this November, Republicans are set to begin the session with 18 members.
Patrick already led the charge to decrease that threshold from 21 members — two-thirds — during his first session as lieutenant governor five years ago.
Since the election, Patrick’s office has not responded to requests for comment on whether he plans to push a rule change that would lower that threshold so Republicans can keep steamrolling Democrats. Such a change would happen at the beginning of the legislative session and only require the support of a simple majority in the chamber, or 16 members.
Four GOP senators’ offices said Tuesday they were unavailable to discuss the topic of Senate rules going into the session.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said Tuesday he is completing his term as chairman and cannot comment “in advance of the caucus taking a position or not” on a rule change. The caucus is holding a retreat this week.
I am on record as being in support of ditching anti-majoritarian traditions like the two-thirds rule, which is now the three-fifths rule. I wasn’t always this way – when the two-thirds rule was first threatened, I stood in defense of it, because I knew it was the only real tool Democrats had at their disposal to stop bills they hated. I’ve since abandoned that thinking, because we’ve seen far too much minority rule in our federal government, and when the blessed day comes that Democrats have control in Austin, I want them to be able to use it. If that means giving up our best tool for obstruction now, then so be it. I know that puts me at odds with current Senate Democrats, several of whom are quoted in that story. I totally get where they’re coming from, and I have no doubt that an unfettered Dan Patrick is a fearful thing. But I can’t defend that practice any more, and I won’t. Majority rule is the better way, and the day is coming when that will be in our favor. Hold tight until then.