Respectful dialogue should characterize Lege’s handling of fractious issues

Davis Clark

Given the recent Congress’ abysmal public approval ratings and infamy as one of the least productive in modern history, reinstating respectful and dignified language, both spoken and written, between parties is paramount to future political progress. The Texas Legislature laid the foundation for the return of such language in its recent handling of the fractious issue of same-sex marriage.

This brief column cannot do justice to the weighty debate between allowing or prohibiting same-sex marriage. That is not its purpose. Rather, it presents a case study for how appropriate language can lay foundations across parties for future legislative progress.

Texas House Bill 2977 suffered revocation this week by its senatorial sponsor, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), because of criticism of its same-sex marriage provision, which would have prevented taxpayer funds from being used to issue same-sex marriage licenses at the state and local levels. The provision anticipated Obergefell v. Hodges, the upcoming Supreme Court case that could make Texas’ current ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Lucio pulled the bill from floor consideration, despite being in favor of it, because its House author, Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), promised to terminate the bill because of its “offensive” language. In issuing that statement, Coleman brought to the fore the nexus of the debate: language.

Coleman took a liberal stance on the issue by arguing that the provision’s language offended his constituents and himself by preventing same-sex couples from enjoying marriage. His argument specifically targeted the negativity of the language, suggesting that it was driven by prejudice rather than progress. His only option, to use his words, was to “kill this bill to stop that language from becoming law.”

The senators in favor of the provision issued Senate Resolution No. 1028 in response. The resolution shifts the language of their goals from negative prohibition of same-sex marriage to constructive protection of traditional marriage. Although both stances hold the same effective meaning for same-sex marriage policy, the shift is not empty posturing — it allows conservatives to express their argument as an appreciation of certain long-standing social values rather than a prejudiced attack on others.

Both sides conducted themselves with the respect and professionalism expected of — but increasingly not delivered by — politicians. The conservatives submitted legislation to further their social beliefs and reacted respectfully when countered by presenting improved articulation of their beliefs. Liberals acted with the same professionalism by stating their qualms with these beliefs in a firm yet tactful manner.

This exchange should serve as the standard for cross-party communication and behavior among Texas congressman. They demonstrated their ability to respectfully and professionally handle controversial issues, such as same-sex marriage, at a time when polarization and extreme tactics poison national and state politics. Although no legislation passed, the proper handling of language about issues and legislation is far more important for future legislative progress.