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Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Democracy, Hot 'n Spicy, Texas Style

Gather 'round, all you pipsqueak nations, and learn how to do real democracy. We've been practicing it in this country for more than two hundred years; one day maybe we'll get it right.

I am pure proud that Texas is stepping to the forefront to show infant democracies exactly how it's done. Seems that more than 50 Democratic Texas state representatives skipped town yesterday, in order to prevent a quorum being formed (they are about ten people short). The idea was to thwart a new (federal) congressional re-districting plan, put forward by (daaa-dum daaa-dum) Tom DeLay.

The real scandal is that not only did the legislators flee the capital, they fled the state, holing up in the Holiday Inn in (oh, the shame!) Ardmore, Oklahoma. Now, the Houston Chronicle says,:

House rules allow for the arrest of members who thwart a quorum, although the act carries no other criminal or civil sanction. But [House Speaker Tom] Craddick, who earlier Monday had ordered the missing members arrested and returned to the Capitol, said the DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] officers did not have arrest authority in Oklahoma.

In other words, the cops can physically drag them back to the Capitol, but they're not charged with anything and don't risk jail or fines. Texas cops can't touch them in Oklahoma, though, so they're "safe" for the time being. (Europe: take note. Texas officers cannot just waltz into Oklahoma and grab its legislators, and the odds of them being extradited for something that isn't a crime, and even if it were, wouldn't be a crime in Oklahoma, are, well, zero.)

The legislative walkout erupted from months of growing tension that the Democrats described as the "tyranny of the majority," resulting from the Republican takeover of the House for the first time since Reconstruction [i.e. since just after the Civil War].

The errant House Democrats issued a statement saying a walkout was the only way they could protect current congressional district lines from being changed solely for political reasons.

I'm shocked, shocked that anyone would draw congressional district lines based on political reasons.

But Craddick described the Democrats as sore losers now that they are in the minority.

"How do you think the Republicans felt for the last 130 years?" Craddick said.

"I've been in the House for 35 years and I've lost some, but I've never walked off the floor like these Chicken D's."

I don't know anything about the redistricting plan. I'm suspicious of anything that DeLay does, because I think he's the kind of reactionary froot loop who gives conservatism a bad name. Take, for example, this shining statement from him, on the significance of his redistricting plan:

"What's at stake here is the most effective and accurate representation for Texans," DeLay said Monday. "Republicans are the majority party in both Washington and Austin and are best able to deliver on Texans' priorities and represent their beliefs."

Forever and ever, amen.

But I don't know if it's any more egregiously political than any that has gone before, nor do I know whether the Republicans have pulled any shady tricks to push the plan through.

This act was not unprecedented. The first (near as I can tell) time was in 1979, when only twelve senators walked out. Then, it was hot Democrat-on-Democrat action, and it was over a change in the date of the presidential primary.

[Then-Lt. Gov. Bill] Hobby, the presiding officer and a Democrat, angered the 12 senators by serving notice he would bypass the Senate's rules and allow the bill to be debated in the closing days of the session without first requiring the normal two-thirds procedural vote.

The change was viewed as an effort to help Connally, a Democrat-turned-Republican eyeing a presidential race in 1980.

One might argue that bypassing the Senate's own rules was a dirty tactic, and deserved some sort of drastic action. I just don't know enough about the situation at that time, or how often the Senate's rules got bypassed in the course of things. At any rate, there was nothing in the paper about shady dealings in the present case. The Chronicle has been such a reliably (I hate to use the word in this way, but there it is) liberal paper that surely they'd report any underhanded shenanigans if there were any.

I mostly post this to highlight the fun you can have in a democracy. For example, the senators who walked out in '79 are called, for no adequately explained reason, the "Killer Bees", and their act is now the stuff of legend:

Nine of the 12 senators...spent five days and four nights...cooped up in a West Austin garage apartment with one bathroom, one bed and one couch, within two miles of the Capitol...

After a couple of days, then-Sen. Gene Jones of Houston, pleading claustrophobia, was allowed to leave and headed home to Houston, where he almost got caught.

Spotting a police officer near his house, Jones sent his brother, the late Clayton D. Jones, to get the morning paper.

The officer insisted Clayton Jones come with him, and the brother -- never denying that he was the senator -- allowed himself to be taken to Austin by helicopter. Only on his arrival did Senate staffers realize the DPS had the wrong man...

Asked how the senators passed the time, [A.R. "Babe"] Schwartz, who is now a lobbyist, replied: "We drank a lot..."

Those rascals in the Lege are such (nyuk) cards:

Republicans constructed signs and gimmicks ridiculing their colleagues. They plastered the Democrats' faces on milk cartons, and state Republican chair Susan Weddington, borrowing from the "most wanted Iraqi" cards, announced she had playing cards featuring the missing legislators.

Omigod! Dissent is being crushed! The Chronicle ran a picture of the cards---obviously hurriedly printed out on the cheap---but I haven't been able to find a copy online.

Ah, but here's another shining example of good clean democratic (note the small d) debate:

"They're legislative terrorists and their leaving today is a weapon of mass obstruction, blocking hundreds of pieces of legislation," Republican Rep. Dan Branch said Monday.

As Molly Ivins says, if you took all the fools out of the Lege, it wouldn't be a representative body anymore.

More coverage here.