Ramsey: If you can't beat them, change the rules
Not everything in politics is partisan: President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, are singing in unison.
Frustrated by supermajority requirements to get favored legislation passed by their respective Senates, each has taken the position that simple majorities should prevail on important public policy votes.
Biden made his pitch this week, saying the U.S. Senate, where he once served, should change its rules so that a simple majority of 51 members would be required to approve voting rights legislation he supports. Under the current rules, it takes 60 of the 100 senators, making it easy for the Republicans and their numerical minority to block the Democrats and their numerical majority.
It’s not at all certain that Biden’s side would prevail even with a rule change. But it is certain that, without it, the voting bill is doomed.
Patrick isn’t on the president’s side when it comes to that voting legislation. But he feels the same way about majorities, a feeling he’s made clear several times since entering public office 15 years ago. As lite guv, and before that as a state senator from Houston, Patrick has railed against rules and traditions that require consent from a supermajority of senators before legislation can be debated.
For years, that was known as the two-thirds rule. It required nods from 21 of the state’s 31 senators before a bill could be debated under most circumstances, and it kept legislation with narrower majorities out of consideration. That didn’t seem fair to Patrick, who was in the Senate’s Republican majority but was often pushing legislation that didn’t have enough support. Unless Republicans had 21 members — and all of those members were in favor of a particular bill — they didn’t have the political juice to debate, much less to get something done on that issue.
Patrick complained about it from the start, beginning with his freshman term in 2007: “We should have simple majority vote. What happened to majority rule? What about Jefferson and Madison and Monroe? It was all right for them.”
The Senate had 21 Republicans at the time, but the freshman from Houston was buried. The Senate voted 30-1 to keep the rule in place and used it to stymie legislation on voter ID, abortion, school vouchers and guns, to name a few.
When Patrick became lieutenant governor, the Senate had 20 Republican members and he got them to change the rule to require 19 senators — three-fifths — instead of 21. Last year, the Senate had 18 Republicans; they changed the rule to five-ninths, meaning 17 senators are now required to bring legislation up for consideration.
And over the years, the Senate (along with the House) has passed legislation that had been stuck under the old rules, requiring voter ID, restricting abortion in the state and making it legal for most Texas adults to carry handguns without licensing or training.
When it comes to Senate procedure, Patrick is a man after Biden’s own heart.
And Biden has run into the same kind of roadblock Patrick faced 15 years ago: The Senate doesn’t seem to want to change its rules. Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema came out Thursday against the president’s wish to change the Senate’s filibuster rules, though she said she supports the voting legislation he’s touting.
That’s how it goes when legislative majorities are small and the battles hinge on how the rules work. Legislators play the rules to their advantage. And when they are successful — and playing the rules in this way is one thing federal and state legislators are very good at — their opponents often have no choice other than resorting to the tactics Patrick and Biden chose.
It’s not partisan politics. It’s parliamentary politics, played by people in all parties: If you can’t win under the current rules, you can give up or you can change the rules.
Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.