Those familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order have an idea of what it takes to pass a motion in a deliberative assembly. Someone makes a motion, the group debates the motion, everyone votes, and the majority wins. However, Robert’s Rules of Order is not designed for state legislatures and is more useful for private organizations and businesses.
The Texas Legislature must follow a web of legal and constitutional requirements in its proceedings; consequently, it writes its own rules of order, which it passes at the beginning of each regular legislative session.
The rules debate is usually straightforward, though it can be used as a vehicle to influence policy. For instance, at the beginning of the current legislative session, some Republicans unsuccessfully sought to bar the speaker of the House from appointing members of the minority party to committee chairmanships.
One quirk of the legislative process is the number of times a bill — a proposed change to state law — must pass each chamber before becoming law. The Texas Constitution requires each house of the Legislature to read bills on three separate days unless the rules are suspended.
Article 3, Section 32 reads, “No bill shall have the force of a law, until it has been read on three several days in each House, and free discussion allowed thereon; but four-fifths of the House, in which the bill may be pending, may suspend this rule, the yeas and nays being taken on the question of suspension, and entered upon the journals.”
Notably, the constitutional requirement refers to a legislative day rather than a calendar day. A legislative day begins when the presiding officer calls the chamber to order and takes attendance, and ends upon adjournment.
In the House, a legislative day usually corresponds to a calendar day, but there are exceptions. For example, when Democrats fled the Capitol during the debate over election reform legislation in 2021, the House continually stood at ease over the course of weeks to avoid the predicament of having no quorum to gavel back in.
The Senate is known for its willingness to suspend its rules to work more quickly. The issue was a sore point during the 87th Legislature in 2021, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick accused the House of working too slowly on conservative priorities.
First reading and referral moves fast. The clerk stands at the front of the chamber and quickly reads the captions of bills and the committees that will consider them. It usually happens at the end of floor meetings when people are filing out of the room.
Second reading is most likely to feature floor flights on the more controversial measures. If a bill fails after second reading, the bill is lost and does not proceed to third reading. A point of order might even be raised against the bill, on grounds such as a misleading caption or incomplete fiscal analysis. In that case, the speaker may consult with the parliamentarian and send the bill back to committee.
The parliamentarians advise the speaker like attorneys advise their clients; they provide the expertise and technical information required to make a decision, but the chair has the final say.
House Democrats were able to successfully delay consideration of the proposed ban on child gender modification procedures by raising a point of order against the bill on the ground that the analysis was misleading. Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) pointed out that the name of an organization that had testified on the bill had been recorded incorrectly.
The bill was sent to the Public Health Committee, which quickly corrected the error before the Calendars Committee placed the bill on Friday’s agenda. Gonzalez again raised a point of order when the bill was taken up a second time, prompting the House to send the bill back to committee again.
On third reading, lawmakers will often take care of last-minute issues such as correcting typos or “perfecting amendments” intended to fix wording problems. Legislators generally dislike long-winded speeches or amendments before the final vote. In fact, on the House floor, members can sometimes be heard groaning and whistling at one another to signal their displeasure.
Once each chamber has passed the same version of the bill, it can be sent to the governor for his approval or veto. If the House and Senate do not agree, the chambers have the option of forming a conference committee composed of members from each body to hash out their differences and send a final copy back to their chambers for approval or rejection.
The final stage of the process is the governor’s decision on a bill. Gov. Greg Abbott has three options — he can sign a bill into law, veto the bill, or allow it to become law by taking no action. He has ten days, not counting Sundays, to act on a bill when the Legislature is in session, or 20 days including Sundays if the session has concluded. If the session is within 10 days of final adjournment, the 20-day clock starts after the final day of the session.
Constitutional amendments are passed by way of a joint resolution that requires the approval of two thirds of each chamber before being placed on the general election ballot, where it requires the approval of a majority of Texas voters. The governor cannot veto proposed amendments to the state constitution.
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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."