If legislative dealings sometimes seem like a confusing numbers game, don't beat yourself up. They are.
But when the people, parties, proposals and priorities behind the legislative dealings are fleshed out, the numbers make more sense.
In the Texas Senate's Jan. 11 consideration of its rules for the current legislative session, Democrats tried to roll back the rules change Republicans made in 2015.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was in the presiding officer's chair. As a freshman state senator in 2007, Patrick had tried to reduce the Senate's two-thirds vote to a simple majority. He got just one vote: his.
As the new lieutenant governor in 2015, Patrick settled for reducing the two-thirds to three-fifths.
The two-thirds rule meant that it took 21 of the 31 senators to bring up a bill. At three-fifths, that number dropped to 19.
Or, under the two-thirds rule, 11 senators could block consideration of a bill. At three-fifths, it takes 13.
Now, attaching party designations makes it clearer. This legislative session, as in 2015, there are 20 Republican senators, and 11 Democrats.
So under the two-thirds rule, the 11 Democrats could block a bill from coming up. Under the current three-fifths rule – which all 20 Republicans voted to keep– the 11 Democrats by themselves can't block anything.
Just to make it a bit more confusing, once a bill gets the super-majority vote necessary to bring it to the floor, it only takes a majority to pass it.
To keep things confusing, the super-majority rule is more a senate tradition than a rule.
The senate rules require that bills be considered in their regular order. But at the start of each legislative session, a meaningless bill, called a "blocker bill," is parked at the top of the Senate calendar.
That means that what a senator is really requesting the senate to do is to bring up his or her bill "out of the regular order of business." That requires a supermajority – two-thirds before 2015, and three-fifths since.
The super-majority to bring up a bill is designed to weed out some hot-button controversial proposals.
Many senators over the years liked the tradition. It can help keep them from getting "cut up," in legislative parlance -- having to vote on bills on which there isn't ample agreement.
Those are the bills that may get killed in the House, or vetoed by the governor – while leaving them with a vote on their record that might haunt them at re-election time.
Another reason for the rule, since neither Democrats nor Republicans have had a two-thirds majority since 1992, is that senators have learned the super-majority rule requires reaching across the partisan aisle – helping build a spirit of civility and bipartisanship.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who presided over the Senate for a record 18 years (1973-1991), had a run-in with trying to get around the two-thirds rule in 1979.
This was leading up to the 1980 presidential election, when former Texas Gov. John Connally and former Congressman George H.W. Bush were planning to face off in the Republican presidential primary.
Conservative Democratic senators feared that having the presidential primary at the same time as they were up for re-nomination could drain off conservatives from the Democratic primary, endangering their political survival.
So Hobby was trying to aid an effort to have an early presidential primary, and primaries for other offices later – with voters able to vote in the Republican presidential primary, and then return to the Democratic primary for other offices.
Liberal and progressive Democratic senators didn't like that. So to try to get around their plans to block a two-thirds vote, Hobby sought to clear the calendar above the dual-primary bill, so it could pass with just a majority vote.
What happened instead was that 14 liberal and progressive Democratic senators fled the capitol to break a quorum – which requires that two-thirds of the senate be there in order to conduct business.
The fugitives hid out – 12 of them in a senatorial aide's cramped garage apartment – for four and a half days, before Hobby threw in the towel and declared amnesty.
All that Hobby accomplished was to unwittingly give the renegades a name: he said they were about as useful as killer bees. So, the "Killer Bees" were immortalized by T-shirts and a book.
Hobby later described it as the biggest blunder of his legislative career.
In his own book entitled "How Things Really Work," Hobby wrote that "Anything that doesn't have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea anyway."
The jury's still out on three-fifths.
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