The Filibuster Should Be Like What’s Happening Now in Texas

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Monday, May 18, 2020. Abbott said that childcare facilities, youth camps, some professional sports, and bars may now begin to fully or partially reopen their facilities as outlined by regulations listed on the Open Texas website. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News Pool)
AUSTIN, TX - MAY 18: Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Photo by Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)
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July 13, 2021 9:55 a.m.

We’re witnessing another of these state legislators abscond across state lines dramas in Texas. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it hearkens back to a similar drama in 2003 which presaged much of our current politics. But I’d like to take this in a different direction. What we’re seeing right now with these efforts to short-circuit the legislative process is what the legislative filibuster in the Senate should be like.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we move to a system where Senators run off to Canada or I guess in some cases Russia. It gets a bit more complicated in jurisdictional terms. But Texas Democrats clearly believe these laws are of an extraordinary character. Texas legislative Democrats get outvoted all the time. But they view this law as different from other laws they oppose. And most critically their actions are public and self-limiting.

It’s very publicly clear what’s happening here. Democrats are making a huge spectacle. No one’s going to miss that. They also have to be very clear why they’re doing it. It’s because of an assault on voting rights in the state. They have to own that. And they’re taking this step because they’re clearly quite willing to own that.

Just as clear, this can only go on for so long. How do I know? Basically logic really but also history. We’ve seen this in Texas, Oregon, Wisconsin and various other places. Legislators are only willing to stay on the lam for so long. Over time there are various tools legislative majorities can use to get their way. (That’s not a bad thing. Majority rule is our fundamental system.) You also need a really good reason for doing it. Otherwise public opinion will rapidly turn against you.

The whole effort is best seen as an effort to stall, buy some time and they hope either slow the process down or shift public opinion in their favor. It’s not pretty but there’s some value in having that kind of escape valve in the legislative process. It’s public. It’s self-limiting. You have to own it and be politically accountable for your actions.

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But imagine a different scenario.

Imagine Texas Republicans wanted to use their majority to push their voting restriction law and the minority Democrats could just say, um no. Sort of abscond in place, as it were. Republicans say, wait. We’re the majority. We want to pass this law. Dems think for a moment, scratch their chin and again, ummmmm, no. No need to make a fuss or run over state lines or anything. Indeed, if it were that easy they’d do it all the time.

Needless to say, that’s what we call the modern Senate filibuster. You literally don’t have to do anything, just send an email. With that little accountability things quickly get out of hand.

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