The Texas Legislature’s special session grinds to a halt

THE Texas House of Representatives adjourned on August 15th, after a special legislative session that left many legislators, on both sides of the aisle, a bit dyspeptic. “The problem continues to be that politics rather than policy is driving the bus,” said Chris Paddie, a Republican representative from east Texas, that evening. The Texan constitution gives the governor the option of calling special legislative sessions to address issues left lingering after the Legislature’s brief, biennial regular meetings. And this year the governor, Greg Abbott, had little choice but to do so. The 85th Legislature adjourned, in May, without having passed legislation required to reauthorise several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors.

This was a crisis manufactured by the lieutenant-governor, Dan Patrick, who is widely thought to be interested in ascending to the governor’s office. Mr Abbott responded, in June, by doubling down. The legislators would return, he announced, and that being the case, they should get to work. He announced a list of 20 issues he expected them to tackle over the course of the special session, which would run for 30 days. His list included mainstream concerns, such as school finance and the state’s staggeringly high maternal mortality rate, but also red-meat political priorities; among other things, the governor wanted legislation concerning which lavatories transgender Texans might use.

Democrats, who are outnumbered in both chambers, were unenthused about being sent back to Austin to tackle the governor’s to-do list after an acrimonious regular session which ended in threats of violence. What Mr Abbott seemingly failed to anticipate is that so many Republicans would be, too. Their humour did not improve after he announced that he would be keeping a daily tally of those who had signed on to support each of his priorities. By the end of the session, several had openly scoffed at the governor’s efforts at intimidation.

Chief among them, as usual, was House Speaker Joe Straus. The Senate—at the behest of Mr Patrick, who presides over that chamber—summarily set to work on Mr Abbott’s agenda. Mr Straus, whose control over his fellow Republicans in the lower chamber is comparatively weaker than Mr Patrick’s is over their colleagues in the Senate, made it clear that he saw no particular reason for the House to follow suit. He had already registered his opposition to the bathroom bill, in no uncertain terms, during the regular session, and Mr Abbott’s efforts to revive it were ill-fated. Business groups and law enforcement joined Democrats and moderate Republicans in opposing the legislation, and the effort to railroad it through failed once again.

That the Texas Senate adjourned shortly after the House did was instructive. Since the election of President Donald Trump, many Republicans in Texas, as elsewhere, have interpreted the party’s travails in the Lone Star State as a symptom of the national party’s pathologies. Events in Texas, which has been controlled by Republicans for a generation, are a reminder that fierce fighting within the Republican Party predates Mr Trump. On August 14th, though, parliamentary manoeuvring in the House paused for a moment when Dade Phelan, a Republican representative from Beaumont, made an announcement. He had, he said, just spoken to John Sharp, the chancellor of Texas A&M University, who had decided to cancel an event on campus, planned by white nationalists, in light of the racist violence over the weekend in Charlottesville. The news was well-received, and quickly dismissed. There was work to do, and Washington, for once, was the least of the state’s problems.

Correction: An earlier version of this article confused John Sharp with John Raney, a Texas state representative. Mr Sharp is chancellor of Texas A&M University. Sorry

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