Monday, January 10, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes - Part I

Last month The Austin American Statesmen reported that Representatives Pena and Ritter, formerly Democratic State House members, switched parties and are now Republicans. This change means that the Texas House now has 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats.

One-hundred is a key number in the Texas House, which has 150 members total, there are several key parliamentary procedures that require two-thirds of the members, including establishing a quorum, suspending the House rules, approving proposed constitutional amendments and even expelling fellow house members.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, in order to exercise their new found power they will have to find a way to unite a party that is increasingly fractured and discordant. The same Teabagger movement that swept them into their 'super majority' has also emboldened the most arch members of their conservative wing and saddled them with 30 freshmen legislators, most of whom ran on such fevered opposition to federal issues it's difficult to know if they understand they've been elected to the state legislature.

While the current partisan break down of the House is certain to play a major role in issues such as voter suppression and redistricting, its influence on the fate of major queer issues such as bullying and ending insurance discrimination is hard to predict.

Attempting to understand the relationship between the partisan divide and the fate of legislation that affects the queer community I looked at 10 house votes from the last 5 regular sessions. What I found was that support or opposition to the best interest of the queer community never fell along partisan lines. In fact 15 of the 44 incumbent Democrats in the House this session have a record of voting against LGBT people at least once and 23 of 69 incumbent Republicans have a history of, at least once, voting for them.

Before we look at the historic votes more closely let's talk about the challenges of interpreting Texas House votes. According to the House Rules all votes are taken by voice vote, but any member can request that a 'record vote' be taken which will record specifically who voted which way (technically the rules say that every vote must be a voice vote but that after the vote is taken any member may request that a record vote may also be taken - historically the presiding officer of the house has forgone this formality and skipped right to the record vote if requested).

If only a voice vote is taken and the measure passes members who opposed the measure may enter their official opposition in the record. In that instance the House Journal only reflects those in opposition.

In cases of record votes each member of the house uses a voting machine embedded into their desk to record their vote. The machine allows them to vote either 'yea', 'nay' or 'present not voting' for each item before the House.

If a member is away from the House Chamber due to illness, family emergency or similar circumstance they can ask a fellow member to request that the Speaker excuse them, if a vote happens while they are away they are notated as being "Absent-Excused" in the record. Typically a member who is "Absent-Excused" will miss an entire day of votes.

The House often meets for hours on end without breaks. Members must often step out of the chamber the eat meals, meet with constituents or take bathroom breaks. If a member happens to be away from their desk and unable to vote when a record vote is taken they are recorded as being 'absent' from that vote.

So on any vote there are five different ways that a members position could be recorded: Yea, Nay, Present - Not Voting, Absent-Excused and Absent.

The issue is further complicated by a long standing tradition of members voting for each other. Many representatives feel that it is appropriate for them to record a vote on the machine embedded in the desk of a colleague who is absent, obstinately voting in the manner that member would and sparing them a record of being "absent" for a vote. The practice is strictly prohibited by House Rule 5, section 47, but it still happens (and was famously defended by Rep. Debbie Riddle after she was caught, on tape, voting for Rep. Kuempel).

These votes are jokingly referred to as "voting machine malfunctions". The House Rules allow members to enter a statement in the official house record explaining that their voting machine "malfunctioned" and stating how they intended to vote. Members can enter a similar statement if they are absent for a vote and would like a record of their position on the record.

For the purposes of analyzing historic House votes I have chosen to reflect member's "intended" vote if it differs from their recorded vote.

Up next in Part II - the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act of 1999 and the power of committee chairmanship.

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