Flashback: The Senators’ Senate

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

Note: This article originally appeared in the Quorum Report on April 15, 2019 as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was poised to force revenue cap legislation through the Texas Senate. Given his new comments about once again changing senate rules to accommodate a potentially smaller GOP Caucus in 2021, it seemed appropriate to revisit this analysis.


Time and again since the beginning of the 2019 legislative session – when he was notably absent – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has answered questions about a possible jump to the Trump Administration as DHS Secretary or something else by saying he already has the best job in government he is ever going to have.

Patrick even went so far as to tell our friend Chad Hasty of KFYO Radio in Lubbock that he’s already announcing his bid for reelection in 2022. The promises, though, rang hollow to Texas Capitol observers on the eve of Patrick’s plan to invoke the “nuclear option” to pass Senate Bill 2, the property tax “reform” legislation, by first moving the “blocker bills” out of the way with a simple majority.

One GOP senator on Thursday admitted that at least four Republicans were not yet willing to go along with the plan, under consideration since February, which is why it didn’t happen last week or sooner. But now at least one top Republican is privately saying they do have 18 votes, more than enough even with a lone GOP holdout, to move the “blocker bills” ending decades of Senate tradition.

To be clear, Patrick is operating within the rules and not changing them as some have reported.

This is brute force not craftiness.

Ironically, the Senate’s tradition is to routinely suspend its own rules and the Texas Constitution’s provision that bills be read on “three several days” as it normally goes about business during regular sessions. That dynamic makes what is unfolding now difficult to explain to civilians. Even some veterans of the process have said they have a hard time getting their minds around what’s happening because it’s such new territory.

Here’s the refresher on what’s apparently about to go down:

Since the division in the chamber is 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, the “blocker bills” theoretically give Democrats and one Republican the right to stop legislation on the way to the floor by refusing to “suspend the regular order of business.” It would normally take a three-fifths vote of the senators to bring up a bill for debate, down from the two-thirds required prior to Patrick’s tenure as presiding officer.

The regular order of business is simply numerical order. So, after Sen. Bryan Hughes is recognized for the “blocker bills,” SB 2 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt is next. The “blocker bills” have traditionally been placed on the calendar in front of all other legislation to create the need for the regular order of business to be suspended.

Your eyes glazed over yet? Yes, it is just as arcane as it sounds but it creates the need for consensus among senators from both parties and all regions of this diverse state.

As presiding officer of Senate, Patrick’s constitutional powers are limited. He can cast a vote in the case of a tie and serves as governor when the actual governor is physically out of the state. That’s it.

In Senate matters, the Lt. Governor only has powers the senators give him. The powers of the Texas House speaker are similarly granted by the members, whose power comes from the Texans who elected them.

That said, it is generally appropriate for senators to behave deferentially toward the president of the Senate. It just hasn’t always worked that way.

Patrick’s predecessor, David H. Dewhurst, was quietly removed from the chair by senators who were irritated with him on at least two occasions. Patrick was there to witness it because he was already a senator occupying the seat now held by Sen. Bettencourt.

The first was in 2007 when then-Senate Administration Committee Chairman Kim Brimer essentially presided over the last six weeks of the session while Lt. Gov. Dewhurst was relegated to negotiations in the back room. The senators literally have the ability to remove the Lt. Governor from the chair if they choose and have flexed that muscle before.

It is quite a trick in politics for one officeholder to convince another to surrender their power. But Patrick, nothing like Dewhurst, has done it repeatedly. In changing the old two-thirds rule to a three-fifths threshold, senators transferred power from themselves to his office in 2015, later serving as a rubber stamp for his priorities by the time the 2017 session rolled around.

After the 2018 elections, in which Democrats picked up two seats in Dallas and Tarrant Counties, the only option left for passing partisan legislation beyond changing the rules is to do away with tradition. But that is the senators’ call, not Patrick’s.

That’s why no matter how divisive he can be, Patrick should not be given all the credit nor should he receive all the blame for what may happen on the floor. Along with Gov. Greg Abbott, he has created the political environment for the implosion of an institution for the sake of a bill that will cut no one’s taxes.

As Patrick himself has often said, “It’s the senators’ Senate.”

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