88th LegislatureIssuesState HouseParliamentary Maneuver Allows Texas Lawmakers to Adjourn for Extended Periods of Time

The Texas Constitution prohibits the Legislature from considering most bills on the floor until 60 days into session except for extenuating circumstances.
March 6, 2023
As committees hear testimony at the state Capitol and prepare for the upcoming March 10 bill filing deadline, the Legislature has been passing resolutions that permit adjournment for extended periods of time. While this maneuver is usually not controversial, it recently became the subject of a procedural quarrel in the Texas House.

The Legislature operates on a calendar set by state law and the Texas Constitution. However, members also have some latitude to decide when business is considered on the floor.

The first few weeks lawmakers are in Austin are occupied by rituals, congratulatory resolutions, and preparation for the latter months of the session. Legislation is hashed out between elected officials and “stakeholders,” and new members get acquainted with the legislative process. Committees also begin hearing testimony after 30 days.

Congratulations and memorial resolutions can be written about nearly anything. For instance, last week, Rep. Shelby Slawson (R-Stephenville) presented a resolution on March 1 declaring “Earth County Day” at the Capitol, and Rep. Carl Tepper (R-Lubbock) congratulated Texas Tech University on its 100th anniversary. The day before, Rep. Ben Bumgarner (R-Flower Mound) presented a memorial resolution for a friend of his who passed away with cancer.

This part of the legislative session is usually courtly, with very little partisan bickering or fights over hot-button issues.

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‘Please Take Your Chair’

While some rules of order are adopted by lawmakers themselves at the beginning of each session, others are mandated by the state constitution. On Tuesday, February 14, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) recognized Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) to present the typical resolution to adjourn for more than three days, a formality required by Article III, Section 17.

Just as the chamber was about to vote, Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) approached the back microphone and asked Goldman to yield to a series of questions. Goldman agreed.

“Are you aware of HR 24 from 1972? I’m guessing the answer’s no,” Tinderholt asked.

“Are you going to speak for me or do you want me to answer?” Goldman grinned.

Goldman indicated that he was unfamiliar with the resolutions Tinderholt referenced, whereupon Tinderholt explained that they were used in previous sessions to take up items of business before the bill filing deadline.

Art. III of the Texas Constitution stipulates that “either House may determine its order of business by an affirmative vote of four-fifths of its membership.” The Legislature stopped taking advantage of this provision in the 81st Legislature in 2009, Tinderholt added.

In the House, four-fifths of the body is 120 votes. In other words, this session, all Republicans and at least 34 Democrats would need to be on board. On the Senate side, 25 members would need to agree, which would require six Democrats.

Tinderholt contended there were items on the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) agenda and priorities for House members that should be considered on the floor early.

While it is unlikely that so many lawmakers would be amenable to debate a slab of conservative priorities this early in the session, Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) introduced a resolution to bypass the order of business set forth in the constitution and replace it with the House’s own agenda. House Resolution (HR) 13 uses language similar to documents passed in previous sessions.

On the House floor, Phelan interrupted Tinderholt and admonished him that his remarks were not related to Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 18, the document authorizing the extended adjournment.

The speaker was well within his authority to decide that Tinderholt’s line of questioning was not germane. Rule 1, Section 9 of the chamber’s rules confer to the speaker the authority to decide all questions of order. There is an appeal process, but appealing the speaker’s decision to the entire House requires 10 signatures.

Further, Rule 5, Section 22 requires all members to “confine all remarks to the question under debate” when addressing the House.

However, it is also common for lawmakers to provide commentary and background information on their questions before and after presenting them. As long as there is general decorum, the speaker does not typically keep that tight of a rein on what is said from the back mic.

Exceptions do happen, such as when Rep. Vicki Goodwin (D-Austin) and former Rep. Ben Leman quarreled for control over the back mic during a floor meeting in 2021.

“We could actually suspend the constitution to take up stuff and consider it before 60 days so that we don’t tell people when we leave here that we ran out of time,” Tinderholt said, astonished by Phelan’s reaction to his question and Goldman’s declining to answer it.

He added, “And the disrespect that I’m getting right now is actually absurd. I’ve never seen it since I’ve been here, in eight years.”

Phelan again told him the question was out of order, whereupon Tinderholt made a parliamentary inquiry.

“Please state your inquiry,” Phelan said.

“How the heck is that not a question concerning this SCR?” Tinderholt asked. “I’m specifically stating that I think that doing this, I’m asking (Goldman) if he agrees, that we could do the opposite and he’s not answering the question.”

Phelan sought guidance from the parliamentarian, then addressed Tinderholt once again, “In the opinion of the chair, your remarks are not on the subject of SCR 18, they are dilatory. Please take your chair.”

In a parting remark, Tinderholt said he hoped members were “ready to get to work” and would vote against the extended adjournment, but almost no one did.

SCR 18 passed by a vote of 146 to 2, with Tinderholt and Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) the only votes in opposition. Rep. Mano DeAyala (R-Houston) voted yes, but added a note in the record that he intended to abstain from the vote. Previously, the measure had passed the Texas Senate unanimously.

The exchange illustrated the conflict between Phelan’s desire to advance his agenda and demonstrate his authority in the chamber, and Tinderholt’s desire to highlight the fact that things on the RPT wishlist will likely be left undone because of the pace that lawmakers prefer to follow.

Phelan directing Tinderholt to take his chair would later be interpreted by Tinderholt as “sit down and shut up,” a sentiment felt by those who view elected Republicans as slow-moving to pass conservative priorities.

Tinderholt captured the clip of the exchange and produced it on social media, calling it a “strong message” to new lawmakers that their voices would not be heard.

The extended adjournment is not necessarily a long weekend. Texas lawmakers work part-time and have other occupations that require their attention. There is also business to attend in their districts, and work to be done behind the scenes on bills and committee testimony. Floor meetings are only part of their duties.

However, while some amendments and bills are eliminated for lack of votes, it is true that some fail because of the time clock. Democrats were famously able to defeat Rep. Briscoe Cain’s (R-Deer Park) version of the election integrity bill by leaving the chamber without a quorum just before midnight on the deadline to pass bills.

During a speech at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy event, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promoted a proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) that would allow the Legislature to consider bills and resolutions beginning on day one rather than waiting until the 60-day mark or suspending the constitutional order of business.

In the meantime, Texans will have to wait a bit longer until elected officials consider the most controversial topics.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify language in the Texas Constitution.


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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."