Previously we wrote about the process of drafting legislation and all the steps required to get it through the assigned committee. That is a lot of work and a significant accomplishment but the next stages are even more challenging.
All bills are sent to one of our two Calendars: the General Calendar or the Local and Consent Calendar. And yes, these are two additional committees to work through. They each function as gatekeepers working to ensure that any bill they set for floor debate and a vote merits the attention of the Legislature. While a committee might pass a bill, it might have little chance of passing, or be one that might be controversial and take lots of time. Time is at a premium and many more bills pass out of committees than can be considered on the floor. We bill authors take on the challenge of convincing the committee members of the merits and importance of our bill to have them approved and set. Please know that every member is engaged in this activity and with hundreds of active bills and 150 members, these folks are inundated with information and attention.
Bills that are local and/or non controversial are sent to the Local Calendar and passed in rapid fire succession. Floor amendments are not allowed and no bill can be discussed for more than ten minutes. In fact, a local bill can be “talked to death” if a member opposing a bill will ask ten minutes
worth of questions.
More significant bills are set on the General Calendar. Full ranging debates, amendments and amendment to amendments are commonplace. Some bills are approved quickly, others can take eight hours or more. For example, we had over 200 amendments to the budget (CSHB1), and eminent domain (SB18) had 60 plus. Amendments might change one word or insert new sections and even entire bills so we really pay attention. Our desk computers show all the changes proposed and display any pre-filed (prior to debate) amendments. This lets us look ahead and prepare ourselves.
The gymnastics can be interesting during debate. The bill author speaks from the front mike and questions are posed from the back microphone, each of which are in the wide center aisle of the House Chamber. If a member has an amendment to change the bill, they use the front mike to lay it out and advocate. It often happens that the bill author will then leave the front and go to the back mike to ask questions (like “Why are you trying to wreck my very good bill?”). Should the bill author propose an amendment to the amendment (e.g. your bill wrecking idea only applies to bills not like mine), then the author returns to the front mike and the opponent moves to the back.
To add to the confusion, any member wishing to speak must do so from one of the two microphones. So we line up and, just as in school, people of the rush ahead of others for a better place in line. And for the final ‘inside baseball” angle on this, a supporter of a bill might simply stand at the back mike, not asking to be recognized to speak so their colleague up front can speak uninterrupted.
Two customs are worth noting that occur during debate. When members have heard enough of an extraneous debate, you will hear shouts of “Work!” More importantly, when an author is laying out a bill, you will hear shouts of “Vote!” meaning that members have heard enough and going on can be hazardous to your bill. And if you are laying out a bill and the back mike is empty, even if you have a bill description as good as “The King’s Speech” it is best to simply say “move passage” and save the speech for your next town hall meeting.
With only 15% of bills making at all the way through the process, each step is critical. However, none is more unpredictable, challenging, or rewarding, than working to get 76 colleagues from across Texas to vote yes on your bill.