87th LegislatureState HouseCalls for Stripping Quorum-Breaking Democrats of Chairmanships Heighten as Window for Action Closes

Only days remain in the state's second special session and the window of opportunity for Republicans to punish Democrats who broke quorum is closing.
September 2, 2021
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The 40-day breach of quorum is now in the Texas legislature’s rearview mirror, though recourse for those fifty-some-odd Democratic legislators remains a looming question mark and the window of opportunity is closing.

Debate to revoke chairmanships began shortly after the group of Democrats jettisoned off to Washington, D.C. 

Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) immediately filed a House rules change to provide a roadmap toward revoking chairmanships for absentee members and levy other punishments. Tinderholt had introduced that language each of the last few legislative sessions, but again it went nowhere.

The issue sparked an even more esoteric debate over whether such a maneuver could be voted on without a quorum — with Republican legislators falling on different sides of the question despite much of the delegation agreeing that chairmanships should be revoked.

At the center of the dispute is whether Tinderholt’s or a similar resolution could be considered “incidental to the call of the House,” and thus eligible for consideration without a quorum.

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Once a quorum was restored on August 19, a new and more comprehensive resolution was filed by Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) — one of the members who disagreed with Tinderholt’s assessment that his resolution could be considered without a quorum.

If adopted, House Resolution (HR) 72 would not only establish automatic triggers for committee chair positions to be revoked after a certain number of days of unexcused absences, but it also would retroactively apply to those who spent much of this summer in D.C.

In addition to other consequences, the resolution would end the debate between Tinderholt and Vasut by explicitly defining these motions as “incidental” to the call of the House.

At a Monday press conference, most of the Texas Freedom Caucus’ members alongside other conservative and Republican legislators and Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi rallied behind the resolution.

“We need to have changes to our rules that empower, frankly, less than a quorum to be able to do something about [quorum breaks],” Vasut said.

“[HR 72 creates] automatic penalties that make sure quorum busting doesn’t happen in the future, or that if it does, that there are severe consequences for it.”

Rinaldi announced that the Texas GOP’s State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) passed unanimously a resolution calling for chairmanships to be revoked from the Democrats who broke quorum. Rinaldi himself has been outspoken about this and has called on Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and the House GOP Caucus to act on such a measure.

Adding further support for those calls, the Texas Young Republicans and Texas Federation of College Republicans issued a joint statement echoing Rinaldi’s position.

“I want to be clear,” Rinaldi said at the presser, “I’ve never seen an issue that unites all wings of the Republican Party so firmly as this one does.”

Shortly after HR 72 was filed, Tinderholt attempted to make a motion on the House floor for a “committee of the whole” — a parliamentary maneuver for the general body to advance legislation through the committee process like it were its own standalone committee — in order to expedite the process. His motion from the back microphone was not recognized and Tinderholt was instead told to discuss it at the dais.

Asked what came of that discussion, Tinderholt told The Texan, “My motion was denied but they did refer HR 72 to House Administration for a hearing however it has not received one yet.”

“HR 72 is more robust than the resolution I have proposed,” he added, “and I fully support it.”

Two days before that press conference, the House Administration Committee held a hearing on HR 96 by Reps. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) and Hugh Shine (R-Temple) that would allow committees to meet without a House quorum, levy fines as punishment for unexcused absences, and also revoke chairmanships. The proposal is less comprehensive and heavy-handed than Vasut’s but it has made it further through the process despite being filed days after HR 72.

Asked about that hearing and whether one may occur for his proposal, Vasut told The Texan, “I do appreciate Rep. Darby for putting forward HR 96. As we talked about there’s two issues here, the accountability for past violations but also for going forward and I think his resolution does address a lot of the things going forward.”

“But I’d like for HR 72 to have a [committee] hearing, but if not then we need to pursue some other mechanism that ensures that we have the accountability piece looking backwards based off of the rules that were already violated.”

One wrinkle to Darby’s and Shine’s version is that punishment is contingent upon the call of the House still being in place. However, a call of the House is automatically eliminated once a quorum is restored. Thus, if quorum-breaking members return en masse to the chamber and restore a quorum, no penalties under this resolution may be levied.

That said, it still allows for these consequences to be issued as long as a quorum is broken — but the lack of retroactivity leaves it unable to punish past breaches of quorum, whether 6 months or 6 seconds previous.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), who was part of the Monday press conference, filed HR 135 that would specifically strip eight members of their current chairmanships: Reps. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas), Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio), Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont), Victoria Neave (D-Dallas), Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), and Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie).

“In the real world we all understand when you repeatedly don’t show up for work there are real consequences. The Legislature should be no different,” Middleton stated in a press release.

The overarching theme of Democrats serving as chairs has been hotly debated for years and crescendoed in the early stages of this year’s regular session. Once Phelan became the presumptive next speaker of the House, a few conservative members called for only Republicans to be appointed as committee chairs.

During the House Rules debate, the topic came up again when those members tried to place such a requirement in the chamber’s governing document. It failed and the effort was opposed by the vast majority of the body — opposition highlighted by conservative Rep. Briscoe Cain’s (R-Deer Park) floor speech denouncing it.

The political consequences of the issue are clear: committee chairmanships leave the minority party in a position to kill the majority party’s priorities. 

This occurred Tuesday afternoon when Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) — who was part of the initial quorum break but is not on Middleton’s list because he returned to the chamber a week and a half later — declined to advance legislation requiring youth athletes to compete within their biological sex, likely spelling its doom for this session.

But it’s not just Democrats killing the GOP’s legislative priorities in committee.

Phelan has been largely silent on the prospect of revoking chairmanships, instead demanding that absentee members return their per diems and removing Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) from the House’s second-in-command position.

But with the 87th Legislature’s second special sessions’ days dwindling, time is at a premium and the opportunity for Texas Republicans to levy their preferred punishments is fading along with it.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.