Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Denise Flores.
Hey, Texplainer: Why do both chambers adjourn so early in the day at the beginning of the legislative session?
You may expect to see a full chamber on a Friday afternoon during the first week of the legislative session since lawmakers only meet for 140 days every odd-numbered year.
Texas lawmakers see thousands of bills filed each session. But for the first two — sometimes three — months of each Legislature, the respective Capitol chambers typically adjourn after meeting for less than an hour. And more often than not, that hour consists of nothing more than pomp and circumstance.
Last week, on the second day of the 2019 legislative session, the Senate adjourned after meeting for less than 30 minutes. Across the rotunda, the Texas House took the first Friday and Monday of the legislative session off because of the upcoming inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
“Members, I hope you’re happy with this decision,” newly-elected House Speaker Dennis Bonnen joked to state representatives on the first day of the 86th legislative session. “Enjoy your long weekend.”
According to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, the Legislature can’t hit the ground running for a handful of reasons. Lawmakers can hold committee hearings in the early days of a new legislative session, but the state constitution says lawmakers can’t pass any bills during the first 60 calendar days — unless the governor declares it an emergency item or it's an emergency appropriation.
“The governor is the person who’s holding the starting gate,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s like rodeo: The governor is the one who’s going to open the chute but until that happens, the bull will remain inside the pen.”
While lawmakers have long bemoaned the slow process and blamed it for the death of measures they’ve authored, changing the 60-day rule, which was adopted in 1930, would require a constitutional amendment.
“It’s a throwback to the days before internet and travel and fast cars and highways when it took time for the membership to gather,” said Jeff Blaylock, the publisher of Texas Election Source who is also a former legislative committee director for the House State Affairs Committee.
Blaylock said the framers of the Texas Constitution didn’t want bills to get “rammed through” the Capitol, and the 60-day rule allows lawmakers “to get to Austin, get focused on what the state’s needs are and figure out what they want to do for their districts.”
Blaylock said another reason for the slow start to each legislative session is that each chamber needs time to name new committees and appoint committee chairs. Those committees typically don’t receive bills and start holding public hearings until early February.
Bills are referred to committees during floor sessions and receive what's known as a "first reading" once they get a public hearing. After a committee has done its work and reported a bill favorably, each chamber may bring it to the floor for debate and a preliminary vote, which is known as “second reading.” That’s followed by a final "third reading" before its sent to the opposite chamber. Once a majority of members from both the House and Senate come to an agreement on a bill’s language, it’s sent to the governor where he or she can either sign it into law, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature.
There’s one more bit of business that chews up time early in every legislative session: Both chambers need to adopt new housekeeping resolutions and a set of rules that will govern their respective chambers for the next two years. The lower chamber took that step last week with little to no debate and adopted rules that changed many committee names, memberships and jurisdictions.
Because lawmakers are prohibited from passing bills until the session is nearly 40 percent complete, they’re sometimes called back for legislative overtime — or a special session, something that’s happened more than 110 times since 1850, according to Legislative Research Library records.
Rick Perry — the longest serving Texas governor — called lawmakers back to Austin 12 times while in office, the most in the Legislature’s history. And during the 2017 legislative session, Abbott called the Legislature back over the summer to break a stalemate over “sunset” legislation that had to pass for agencies like the Texas Medical Board to continue functioning.
Since lawmakers are racing against the clock and have deadlines to get bills to the floor of a chamber before their measures die, there's a mad rush to get bills passed during the second half of session. Blaylock argued, however, that even if there weren’t deadlines imposed, it's likely elected officials would still move slowly.
“If you think back to when you were in college and you had three weeks to write a paper versus three months, you ended up spending the same amount of time on the paper,” Blaylock said. “It’s just a question of when did you finish it.”
The bottom line: One reason both chambers adjourn early in the first few months of a new legislative session is because under state law, lawmakers can’t pass any bills during the first 60 calendar days — unless the governor declares it an emergency item or it's an emergency appropriation. Another reason is that House and Senate committees are not yet named, organized and functioning and no legislation has been referred to them for action.
Disclosure: The University of Houston and Jeff Blaylock have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.