Bills, Guns and Committees Come to the Capitol

Feb 6, 2015

Two weeks ago Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick handed out his committee assignments, and, this week, House Speaker Joe Straus did the same. That means the sounds that now fill the House and Senate chambers –  of lawmakers giving congratulatory resolutions – is about to change.

Bills often make the news only to quickly disappear from public discourse. Some, like one that moved in the Legislature this week on open carry, gain attention and momentum. Why do some bills fade away while others don't? The answer sometimes lies with House and Senate committees.

How to Pass a Bill

The journey from bill filing to governor's signature is a long and, about 70 percent of the time, unsuccessful journey.  First up, bill referral, when bills are read for the first time in either the House or Senate and then sent to a committee.

The committee holds hearings on the bill. They get public and expert testimony on the pros and cons of the bill. The committee then has a couple of options: vote to send the bill back to the floor, reject it or do nothing – and leave it languish and die. And so, the lawmakers in charge of committees can have a big influence on what gets done in a legislative session.

But bills can leave a committee and still never come up for a vote. In the House, a bill must get past the calendars committee, which could simply not add the bill to the calendar. On the Senate side, before a bill can come up for a vote, three-fifths of Senators have to vote to bring it up. Once on the floor, the bill has to be passed not once, but twice. After that, it's on to the opposite chamber to go through the same route to passage.

Once a bill has passed both chambers, the House and Senate assign lawmakers to a conference committee, where the two chambers hammer out any differences between each version of the bill. After that, or if there are no differences, it's on to the Governor's desk, where he can either sign it or veto it.

The Wrong Way to Lobby for a Bill

Speaking of bills, a couple in particular made news this week, just for being referred to a Senate committee. The bills would allow people to openly carry handguns. One would allow it with a license. The other would let anyone do it with or without a permit.

Both were thought to be dead after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said they weren't a priority and didn't have the votes to pass the Senate. What happened in between 'left for dead' and committee referral? Let's head over to Facebook and the 1,300 comments Patrick received for a possible answer. Here's a look at some of the conversation:

Then lead the battle, talk to your people, encourage them to seek out what the constituents actually want and not just what they think they want. TEXANS WANT THIS — Marc Mangan

Should have seen this coming after watching his video response to a question about constitutional carry. Dan Patrick will do what is in his best interest. Ruffling some feathers statewide in freedom's name is certainly not even on his radar... — Nicole-Chase McMillan

Either put it to the vote or vacate your position. ..."does not appear" means you aren't looking close enough or do not want to look close enough. Put it to a vote this session so we can see who else needs to be removed from their positions. — Jerry W. Morris

Lots of reaction. A majority of Texans? No. But Mark Jones says politicians aren't necessarily listening to all of their constituents. Jones is political science fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"For most Republicans, the people they're concerned about are the approximately one million Texans who turn out to vote in the Republican primary. And therefore, they're going to be most concerned with issues that resonate with that small group of Texans."

And at the same time, the open carry advocates have put a lot of effort into shifting public opinion to merge Second Amendment rights with open carry, so that a vote against open carry is a vote against the Second Amendment.

But public opinion can be fickle and the support these small groups have cultivated can quickly evaporate. Open Carry Texas in Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins saw his support vanish after he posted a YouTube video expressing his frustration efforts to pass what some refer to as constitutional carry, which would let anyone, without a permit, openly carry a handgun. Watkins has since deleted the original video from YouTube, but below you can watch a clip of the video.

Rice University's Mark Jones says moments like that may have doomed the cause for this session. Because as public opinion turns against Watkins, it provides cover for politicians to vote against his gun bill.