To the dismay of many Texans and of civil libertarians nationwide, after a dramatic struggle this week, the Texas legislature’s special session ended on a sour note with the defeat of Rep. David Simpson’s bill opposing invasive TSA searches of airline passengers.
The failure of the bill was made considerably more bitter by the underhanded tactics by which a tiny faction of the House leadership scuttled the bill against overwhelming support from both parties and the public. With all of the hard work put into promoting the bill by grassroots groups, its defeat under questionable circumstances has redirected anger originally aimed only at the TSA to political leaders in Texas, particularly House Speaker Joe Straus.
The story of how such a widely supported bill could end up not being passed is an object lesson of how easily the will of the people can be subverted by those who value power over principle.
During the regular legislative session Rep. Simpson’s anti-groping bill and it made it through the House of Representatives by unanimous acclamation and made it out of committee and to the floor of the Senate where it was set to pass when the TSA stepped in and lobbied against it and the Department of Justice issued a letter threatening to close Texas airports if it passed, leading Lt. Governor David Dewhurst to apply his influence to get the bill which was minutes from passing pulled from the floor.
As the inevitable special session approached, Senator Dan Patrick and other supporters convinced the governor to come on board and support the bill and agree to sign it if they could get a pledge from a majority of the members of the House and Senate to support it. This would let them fast-track the bill through both houses and to the governor for his signature quickly without unduly delaying other legislation.
They got the votes. They notified the Governor’s office that they had the votes and they asked the Governor to call the bill for the special session. Governor Perry was out of town doing a pre-presidential tour and when confronted by a citizen journalist and asked about the bill he said that he was not aware that the necessary votes had been pledged, but when he returned to Austin on Sunday the 19th of June he did put the bill on the call for Monday the 20th.
Already a week had been wasted, but there was still time to pass the bill. Despite the Governor’s support, after the session began on the 20th the bill was not scheduled for consideration until the Friday the 24th, wasting more precious time. Then, when it was scheduled to be introduced on Friday, House Speaker Joe Straus made a public announcement that he thought the bill was a “publicity stunt” and not serious legislation, sending a clear message to his supporters to oppose it. This despite the fact that he had not voted against it in the regular session.
Nonetheless, a version of the bill was introduced in the House and another in the Senate with wording which had been edited by the Attorney General’s office to reduce the chances of the bill being contested in court and to satisfy complaints from Speaker Straus, but because of wrangling over the language any votes on the bill were delayed until Monday with the session scheduled to end on Wednesday.
With the Speaker apparently unwilling to advance the House version of the bill, desperate supporters in the Senate passed their version through committee and passed it on the floor in a matter of hours and sent it on to the House where the decision was made to use the Senate version as written to avoid the possibility that the Speaker would keep the House version off the floor.
The House session didn’t start until 2pm on Tuesday and when the messenger from the Senate arrived with the bill the Speaker’s office refused to accept the bill and it was kept waiting for several hours. This final delay guaranteed that passage of the bill would be extremely difficult because of Constitutional rules about how bills have to pass the House.
Under the Texas Constitution, for a bill to pass the House it has to be read and voted on three times, on three separate days and win each vote. At the point where the bill finally made it to the floor there was less than 24 hours left before the end of the session on Wednesday, so the only way to pass the bill was to hold a vote to suspend that constitutional rule to allow them to hold two of the three votes on the same day. Although there were plenty of votes in favor of the bill – enough to make up a supermajority – the vote to suspend the Constitutional rule required a 4/5 majority, and that was going to be very difficult.
The bill passed its first reading easily on Tuesday and then passed a second reading on Wednesday morning easily 106-27, but by the time the held a vote on the motion to suspend the constitutional rule some members had left and it passed with a 96-26 majority – an overwhelming vote in support of the bill, but not quite enough to meet the 4/5 requirement. Ironically the previous vote did meet that requirement, but it didn’t apply to that particular motion. At that point the bill which so many supported and which was enormously popular with the public, was dead.
Before adjourning the special session, the Speaker allowed Rep. Simpson to make a final speech about the bill and how the legislative process had failed so dismally. Simpson was not afraid to point fingers, saying:
“The people in support of this bill have succeeded in shining the light on those who collaborate with the growing tyranny of our federal government….Its’ defeat only propels the liberty movement in this state. The people now know that it is possible to fight back.”
His sentiments were echoed by a statement from the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas, one of the grassroots groups which had made calls to legislators in support of the bill, which said “We may not have won the final victory today, but we sure flushed out the enemies hiding in the brush.” Another grassroots group, Stop Austin Scanners thought that Governor Perry should share the blame, citing Perry’s “failure to call the bill in a timely manner despite numerous requests to do so, his total lack of stewardship in the process, and Speaker Joe Straus’ willful misconduct are the principal reasons why the legislation was derailed.”
At every step Rep. Simpson and his allies did what was requested by the leadership. They amended the bill. They watered down the language. They even ultimately changed “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion” to give the Feds an easy out. Yet despite promises from Governor Perry, they were met with obstruction and delays from the Speaker at every step of the way. With two weeks to pass the bill they ended up having to try to pass it in two days with a special suspension of the rules requiting an outrageously large majority and creating the ironic outcome that a bill which passed easily with a 4/5 majority in the morning when it didn’t need it could not get that same majority in the afternoon when it did.
The defeat of the bill was not a complete loss. It raised awareness of the issue substantially and drew attention to the forces opposing it and exposed the heavy-handed tactics of the TSA. There’s also some evidence that Simpson’s bill helped influence the TSA’s recent decision to reduce the intensity of their searches of children, though it did not stop them from carrying out a horrendous and highly publicized abuse of a 95 year old Leukemia patient.
This fight is not over. The issue still draws great public interest and anger at the TSA and its practices has never been higher. Supporters in Texas promise to continue to pursue the issue and legislators in a growing number of additonal states are introducing similar legislation. People don’t like having their privacy invaded and their persons violated in the service of excessive security procedures which have never been proven to be at all effective. The people may have lost this battle, but the war is far from over.
A version of this article appeared previously at Blogcritics Magazine.