The vote not taken

Over the last eight months, I have received more communication from the district about the Speaker of the House than any other topic. Some think he should be replaced; some think he is the only one with any sense. Spending the 140 days of the regular session immersed in the culture and process of the legislature has given me a slightly different perspective on the issue than I had going in, one I feel deserves sharing.

The problem with singling out one member of the legislature, one leadership team, or one Speaker of the House as being the problem is that it assumes that the problem lies with the person and not with the power itself.

Personal connections and relationships that representatives form greatly influence how things ultimately work. We become friends on the House Floor; we work together and, even if we disagree, we like to have each other’s backs. That’s a good motivation, one born of camaraderie and of being in the fight together.

The problem is that the culture that develops between representatives, made manifest in the rules we pass for ourselves, has begun to supplant the spirit of the process laid out in the Texas Constitution.

The House is supposed to be a body of equals, 150 people each representing just under 175,000 Texans. When one representative is given more power than others, their constituents gain a disproportionate level of representation, which should never be the case in a state, or nation, of equal citizens.

However, with over 4,000 bills to get through in a regular session, a leadership and administrative structure is needed; but the duty of an administrator is to fairly facilitate the process, not to put their thumb on the scale and bend the process for their own purposes.

For example, a committee chairman may choose not to give a bill a hearing, or a speaker may choose to never refer a bill in the first place, out of a sense of protecting their fellow members from tough votes, or simply not liking the legislation for philosophical or political reasons.

While they may be well-intentioned in this on a personal and internal level, it can have devastating outcomes for our process. Choosing not to give a hearing to a bill that has little to no support is a matter of dutiful execution of the administrative duties of a chair, there are a lot of bills to get through and not a lot of time. Choosing not to hear a bill with even moderate support from other representatives and Texans, however, crosses that line between people and process, even if they believe the bill is bad.

A particularly ironic example is HB 164, which prevents local governments from withholding permits from someone who fulfills all the requirements and has properly filled out all necessary forms by purposefully slowing down the process, an issue we haven't received any complaints about in HD20, but has been an issue in some larger municipalities. That bill, despite having 54 coauthors has been denied a hearing from the committee chairman. I guess it is fitting that we not pass that bill. How can we, with a straight face, prevent cities from abusing administrative processes when we cannot do it ourselves?

The job of the House is to legislate. The job of the speaker and the chairs is to administrate, to facilitate the process, a process that should be more important than any one person.

When one person is given too much power, it is only a matter of time before it gets abused, regardless of who is given that power. Power tends to corrupt, plain and simple, and changing out who is in power without changing the nature of the position will result in the same problems as before. Our founders knew this was the case; the framers of the U.S. Constitution separated the branches of government because there are no perfect people. Power must be divided, limited, and kept to a process.

Our current speaker is not the first to have people complain about abuse of process. It was the same with the prior speaker, and many speakers before. The more we keep blaming the person, and not the amount of power we have given the position, the longer it will be until we finally start to see positive changes in how the House operates. It starts with us being willing to shed to the protection of leadership and take the hard votes.

Difficult votes are part of the territory, and protecting us from taking them only makes us weaker. I say bring on the tough votes. I want to hear the bills, even if I disagree with them. The process is more important than any one representative, and it must be honored. Let us take the hard votes, and if we can’t take them and come back to you with a good explanation as to why we voted the way we did, then you deserve better representation.

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