Lege Lines: Straus vs. the Extremists
Railroad Commission spat highlights the divide between right-wingers and House leadership
Desperate to ensure that anti-LGBTQ legislation passes in the Texas House, right-wing lawmakers recently sabotaged floor debate during what should have been a largely mundane vote on an archaically-named agency. House Bill 1818 by Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would keep the Texas Railroad Commission functioning until 2029 and grant it greater oversight of pipelines. (The agency is a misnomer; it actually regulates the oil and gas industry). Before the sunset bill eventually passed on March 29, conservative representatives seized the opportunity to jump-start the House's anti-trans bathroom bill conversation by weaseling amendments to it. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, introduced a measure to block transgender people who haven't updated their birth certificate from using RRC restrooms; Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, offered another to require the definition of women business owners be based on the gender listed on one's birth certificate.
Why resort to the shallow measure? Because House social conservatives see the writing on the wall: While Senate Bill 6 – the bill that prevents transgender residents from using restrooms in government buildings and public colleges that align with their gender identity – shot through Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's Senate in March, it's likely to face more scrutiny (or worse, apathy) in the House, led by moderate Speaker Rep. Joe Straus, who recently called the legislation a "contrived" answer to a "manufactured" problem. "I've gone further than saying it's not a priority," the speaker said during a recent interview at UT. "I oppose it."
That makes the insertion of anti-LGBTQ amendments into unrelated legislation this conservative crew's best bet. It's a trend that began at the outset of the session (from Schaefer, no less), and should continue through sine die ("Lege Lines: Bathroom Bill Steals Spotlight," Jan. 20).
But not so fast. Straus, playing the adult under the circus tent, shut down the anti-LGBTQ amendments, arguing they weren't "germane" to an oil and gas-related bill. That set a fire inside amendment authors, who questioned Straus' determination and authority. "How do we challenge the ruling of the chair? Or is this membership completely beholden to your decision?" asked Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who'd hit the floor feeling a bit more argumentative than even usual.
Other than highlighting the underhanded lengths some lawmakers will take to advance discrimination, the quarrel over the amendments served to demonstrate the deep tension between moderate House leadership and a right-wing faction hellbent on forcing the lower chamber to wade into unproductive red-meat issues. Schaefer, Tinderholt, and Stickland – along with Reps. Matt Krause and Kyle Biedermann – joined forces at the start of the year and formed the Texas Freedom Caucus, an ultra-conservative group that promises to take the Republican Party platform "seriously." And injecting anti-LGBTQ amendments into unrelated bills is clearly a part of that GOP strategy – albeit an unsuccessful one.
On the other hand, Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, proposed an amendment to HB 1818 that would penalize company CEOs who contract with the Railroad Commission if they commit perjury about hiring undocumented immigrants. Anchia, who received some pushback as to the relevancy of his amendment, was making good on his earlier promise to hold "sanctuary industries" accountable while the GOP targets the undocumented ("Derailing Bipartisan Progress?" March 10). "There are 36 bills to punish immigrants, but no bills that deal with the industries that hire them," said Anchia. "So how do we explain the imbalance? I think it can best be explained by hypocrisy." While that measure failed, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, offered an amendment to force the commission's contractors and subcontractors to use E-Verify, which tracks eligibility to work legally in the U.S. Democrats voted against it, and Anchia called Republicans out for rejecting "strict action" against a lawbreaking industry and opting for "watered-down policy" that barely goes beyond current law.
Expect both amendment strategies – one meant to punish hypocrisy and the other to further marginalize a vulnerable population – to resurface later this session.