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Under new Texas House rules, Democrats can chair committees, be punished for breaking quorum

Grassroots Republicans came to the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, January 11, 2023, to protest the appointment of Democratic committee chairs.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Grassroots Republicans came to the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, January 11, 2023, to protest the appointment of Democratic committee chairs.

The Republican-led Texas House of Representatives voted on Wednesday on a rules package that would allow the appointment of Democrats to chair certain committees.

The vote is a victory for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who has insisted on appointing members of the other party over objections from grassroots Republicans.

Rep. Bryan Slaton, R- Royse City, has been one of Phelan’s biggest detractors over the chairmanship issue. He presented an amendment to the rules on Wednesday that would have banned Democrats from holding the positions.

“This amendment fulfills one of the legislative priorities of the Republican Party of Texas — will honor the will of the people of Texas by ensuring that they actually receive the leadership that they vote for on Election Day,” Slaton said.

The amendment failed, however, meaning there will be no prohibition on assigning members of the minority party to lead committees.

Appointing Democrats has made Phelan the target of criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

During the 2021 legislative session, Phelan appointed 14 democrats as committee chairs. Twenty-one chairmanships went to Republican lawmakers.

Phelan has yet to appoint the new committees for this session.

On Tuesday, Phelan was challenged for the speakership by a trio of Republicans who cited the appointments as a reason to vote against him for a second term as speaker of the Texas House.

In his first speech after being reelected speaker, Phelan talked about the importance of working together despite party affiliation.

“After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C.,” Phelan said.

During Wednesday’s debate on the House rules, more than 30 Republican activists sat in the gallery wearing red shirts that said “Ban Democratic Chairs!”

Lorie Meynig, a Republican activist from Austin, said she’s upset at Phelan dismissing their demands.

“He knows we are not happy,” Meynig said. “And for some reason, which I still can’t figure out, they don’t want to pass our legislative priorities which are what the whole state of Texas has voted on and they don’t want [Democratic] chairs.”

She noted that during the 2021 legislative session, Phelan appointed Rep. Harold V. Dutton, D-Houston, to chair the Public Education Committee.

School choice, a proposal championed by some Republicans, didn’t move forward, despite being a priority for the Republican Party of Texas last year.

New rules would punish quorum breakers

Elsewhere in the rules package, the House also approved a provision aimed at preventing lawmakers from missing session to break a quorum.

In 2021, House Democrats left the state for 38 days to stop the passage of a package of voting restrictions.

Under the new rules, a member who “impedes” the business of the House by being absent from the House floor proceedings is subject to fines, reprimands, censure proceedings or expulsion.

Members will also face a $500 fine for every day they are absent without a leave. Any money used to pay fines cannot come from the member’s operating or campaign accounts.

Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston, disagreed with the move, saying the punishments are meant to “deny me my constitutional right to stop really bad government.”

“The Constitution grants me as a United States citizen, regardless of whether I’m a representative, the right to protest,” Jones said. “These rules deny me that right.”

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.