Governor Abbott Plays Hardball


On the menu today: Texas governor Greg Abbott threatens to cut off the salaries of Democratic state legislators who walked out of the chamber to prevent a quorum; the history of state legislators fleeing their state to prevent the passage of legislation; some signs that SARS-CoV-2 is not yet done with China; and NR once again asks for your support.

Democrats Suddenly Love Legislative-Minority Rights Again

“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” threatened Texas governor Greg Abbott, after Texas state legislative Democrats walked out of the chamber to deny Texas Republicans the quorum necessary to pass their election-reform measure. Abbott threatened to veto Article 10 of the Texas state budget, which is the portion that funds legislators’ salaries.

That threat may not be quite the metaphorical nuclear strike that it initially seems, as being a Texas state legislator is not a full-time job. The salary is $600 per month, with a per diem of $221 per day for each day of a regular session or special session. With the election-reform bill unpassed in the regular session, Abbott pledged the state legislature would hold a special session to ensure its passage.

What’s in that bill? You can read the text here. The summary from the Fort Worth Star Telegram does not quite align with the apocalyptic “Jim Crow 2.0” rhetoric being tossed around by critics:

  • Prohibit temporary polling places in a tent or other movable structures that were designed for cars.

  • Set times dictating when polling places can be open.

  • Make it a Class B misdemeanor for an election officer to “knowingly refuse to accept a (poll) watcher for service.” Poll watchers would have to sign an oath attesting they won’t disrupt the voting process or harass voters.

  • Require a paper audit trail for votes.

  • Require those seeking an application to vote by mail because of a disability to provide the “specific grounds on which the voter is eligible for a ballot to be voted by mail on the ground of disability.”

  • Would make it a state jail felony for a public official to solicit “the submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application.”

Perhaps the biggest objection is declaring that voting on Sunday may only begin after 1 p.m., which critics contend is an attempt to limit “souls to the polls” efforts by African-American churches. But the bill declares that polls may remain open until 9 p.m., and eight hours of early voting on a Sunday does not seem like a particularly draconian restriction. In fact, the legislation declares that polls must be open for at least six hours.

A legislative minority leaving the chamber, in order to deny the majority a quorum and prevent passage of legislation, is not a new trick. And like almost everything else in politics, almost no one has a consistent view on the legitimacy of walkouts independent of who is doing it.

Lawmakers almost always believe that it is valid and necessary when their side does it, and a dereliction of duty and a stunt when the other party does it.

In 2001, Democrats in the Oregon State House of Representatives left the chamber in an effort to derail the Republicans’ preferred redistricting plan. The Senate Democratic leader at the time, Kate Brown, supported the walkout, calling it “very appropriate under the circumstances. . . . Under certain circumstances, it’s fair to say we would use all tools available to us, and stage a similar boycott.”

Fast forward to 2019, 2020, and 2021, and the Republican legislators, now in the minority, staged walkouts in response to cap-and-trade bills and COVID-19 restrictions. Brown, who became governor in 2015, stopped believing that walkouts were appropriate and fair right around the time her party became the majority, and ordered Oregon State Police to hunt down the hiding Republican lawmakers and return them to the legislative chamber. “It is absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents who they are honor-bound to represent here in this building. They need to return and do the jobs they were elected to do.” (Thankfully, as we all know, in recent years Oregon has had no real crime that the state police would need to investigate.) In recent months, Oregon legislators’ Democratic allies have introduced both bills and ballot measures to restrict walkouts or punish those who participate in them.

In 2003, Democratic Texas state senators and representatives fled the state rather than be present for passage of another redistricting plan. Governor Rick Perry ordered the Texas Rangers to find the lawmakers, and one of the Texas Democrats compared his colleagues’ efforts to those of the heroic Texans at the Alamo.

Back in 2011, Wisconsin Democratic state legislators fled the state, rather than allow the chamber to hold a vote on Act 10, a.k.a. the Budget Repair Bill that curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees. (An independent analysis by the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research, at Suffolk University in Boston the following year, calculated that Act 10 had saved taxpayers roughly $1 billion in the first year it was enacted.)

About a month later, Democratic state legislators in Indiana tried the same trick when the chamber considered right-to-work legislation.

If people want to cheer for Texas Democratic state legislators leaving the state capitol to prevent a vote on a bill they oppose, fine. But if they choose to do so, then let us do away, once and for all, with this nonsense that the filibuster represents an existential threat to democracy.

The U.S. Senate has a quorum, too, of 51 senators, written in the Constitution, and thus it is not easily undone. And if 50 Senate Democrats were to nuke the filibuster for legislation, there is an excellent chance that 50 Senate Republicans would start refusing to show up and provide Democrats a quorum.

Legislative chambers will always have minority parties, and the legislative minorities will almost always want to halt, or at least mitigate, what the majority is doing. The question before us is how we want those legislative minority parties to utilize their leverage. Crazed partisans always believe that the next election will demonstrate that they’ve been right all along, and that the stubborn, obstructionist opposition party will finally get its comeuppance and the electorate will relegate the opposition to inconsequential rump status. History teaches us that this almost never happens.

How do we want a legislative minority to exercise its leverage when push comes to shove? A filibuster, or leaving the legislature building, capital city, or state to prevent a quorum? To me, the choice is easy. I suspect most state troopers feel the same way.

Is COVID-19 Coming Back in China?

Back on May 7, I noted that, “to believe the Chinese official numbers, the entire country has seen four people die from COVID-19 since April 2020, and that they’ve never had more than 1,000 active cases on any given day over the past year. According to the Chinese government, no variant of COVID-19 has touched them in any significant way.” According to the official numbers, China has suffered an additional 360 cases since May 7, though no deaths from COVID-19 since January 26. China is not as closed a society as, say, North Korea, but it is not a particularly open one, either. We know that the pandemic is probably worse than official statistics suggest, and the big question is how much worse.

When we start to see a lockdown of neighborhoods in Guangzhou; public transportation shut down; closure of schools, stadiums, and markets; and more than 500 flight cancellations . . . maybe this latest burst of cases is much worse than the government is letting on?

The good news for China is that the government contends it has administered 638 million doses of vaccine against COVID-19, and the latest numbers from Brazil suggest the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine does reduce deaths by 95 percent.

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