On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took his new position on the dais as President of the Texas Senate. Just one day into his new term, Patrick set his sights on rule changes within the upper house of the State Legislature. Chief among them was a long-standing promise to reform the "two-thirds rule." By a 20-10 vote, nearly among party lines, the Senate scrapped a 68-year-old tradition that had been unanimously reaffirmed just two years ago.
The rule, which was formulated back when every single member of the Senate was a Democrat, places a "blocker bill" ahead of all other legislation at the start of a session. Only by a supermajority may any other legislation surpass this blocker bill on the calendar. Under new rules adopted Wednesday, that threshold has been lowered from 21 votes (two-thirds) to 19 (three-fifths). This is conveniently one vote lower than the number of Republicans in the chamber.
A year ago, I wrote a column about this rule and the bipartisan backing it had until recently among political types at the Capitol. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the dean of the Democratic caucus, noted at the time that geographical minorities — as well as political ones — could be adversely affected by the rule change.
Even defenders of this rule from the recent past had apparent changes of heart before Wednesday. State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, was reported by the Houston Chronicle last March to "oppose any change to the two-thirds rule because it has allowed lawmakers representing rural areas to protect their interests."
But Eltife, like every fellow Republican (with the exception of state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls), voted in favor of the new rules. In fact, Eltife sponsored the pertinent resolution and said, "Today's action will make the Texas Senate even better."
The new reality in the Texas Senate is that it will become ever more dysfunctional, just like Congress in Washington. The Senate no longer must rely on any semblance of bipartisanship, a decision it will likely come to regret one day.
Horwitz is an associate editor.