Wolves versus sheep in the Texas Senate

Ok, I admit it: I secretly kind of like Texas Senator Dan Patrick.

We agree on virtually no policy of note. But it was now-Texas Trib Managing Editor Ross Ramsey who said when Patrick was first elected that Dan Patrick would liven up the Texas Senate, which had become, prior to Patrick’s arrival, “a statue park.” Texas politics is one of the finest spectator sports in the history of spectator sports, and on Ramsey’s measure, Patrick is a crowd-pleaser.

But there’s something that Patrick just doesn’t understand. He’s never really gotten that participatory democracy isn’t about two wolves and one sheep voting on what’s for dinner.

Democracy decides who gets to lead the charge. But once the election is over, there should be a fundamental understanding that nobody gets left behind. Political philosophers call it preventing the tyranny of the majority. Texas legislators call it “avoidin’ a good screwin’.”

Patrick is trying, again, to do away with the two-thirds rule in the Senate, which is the rule that says that a bill cannot be brought to the floor for debate unless 21 of the Senate’s 31 members agree that it should be debated. Doing the math, that also means that 11 Senators can block a bill from debate. Patrick’s opposition to the rule is because there happen to be 12 Democrats in the Texas Senate.

The rule was weakened last session when the Senate Republicans voted to exempt Voter ID legislation from the rule, which signaled to Democrats that the two-thirds rule only exists when the Republicans have their two-thirds in the bag. The Republicans had originally wanted to include redistricting legislation in the exemption, but dropped that.

The effect of the rule is to force broad support for any measure passing the legislature, which of course makes it harder to pass legislation. Ironically, in a saner world this would be the conservative view – the fewer bills pass, the less government intervention a legislature would impose on its citizenry.

Dan Patrick’s mistake is that he believes in a winner-take-all system, which also means a loser-lose-all system. If you lost the last election, you should have no effective voice in the process. Just sit at your desk and STFU, please.

Patrick’s miscalculation is that he assumes that all legislative squabbles are partisan – Republicans versus Democrats. Now if you’re just some Joe Schmo living in East Egypt, Texas, you can’t be faulted for assuming that, since R versus D fights dominate what gets reported in the newspapers and on TV.

But Patrick doesn’t have an excuse, since he works in the building. He should know that most Senate debates aren’t partisan. They’re rural versus urban. Pro-gambling versus anti-gambling. Broadband versus cable. UT/TAMU versus every other university. Docs versus insurance companies. Road contractors versus property rights folks.

The coalitions shift 15 times a day, depending on the issue at hand. And the two-thirds rule not only forces the debate to a place in which broader interests are served, but also increases the power of every individual Senator.

Senators are more powerful than House members only because each is 1-of-31, instead of 1-of-150. And under the two-thirds rule, they’re even more powerful than that, since depending on the issue, they’re actually 1-of-21 in a coalition to pass a good bill, or even 1-of-11 in a coalition to kill a bad bill. It shows up in the attention lobbyists pay them, in the amount of constituent communications they get, and in the massive fundraising advantage they have over other officeholders.

Senators joining with Patrick to do away with the rule will be doing so to make it easier to pass whatever their agenda will be. But in so doing, they’ll be voting to do away with much of their own power. For example, a rural Republican senator voting to do away with the two-thirds rule will also be voting to some day be mowed down by their urban colleagues on a future vote they could have otherwise prevented.

No, democracy isn’t about two wolves and one sheep voting on what’s for dinner. But even if it was, one would at least expect the sheep to vote against eating the sheep.



3 Responses to Wolves versus sheep in the Texas Senate

  1. Anonymous November 10, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    Good explanation Harold. Most people do not understand what creates a deliberative body or that it is the true basis of democracy. There are not many these days. Or what’s left of one..

  2. DMW/P November 11, 2010 at 5:39 am #

    FUBAR, you are a wise man.
    /Did I say that out loud?

  3. FUBAR November 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    DMW/P: you’ve been drinkin’ again, ain’t ya?

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