"Majority rule, minority rights." It's one of the first axioms you learn in civics, social studies or whatever your elementary school called it. It's part of the American social contract, that those out of power in a legislative body have at least some means to check the actions of those in power.
In the Texas Senate, for more than half a century, the so-called "two-thirds rule" has been that means. At the beginning of each legislative session a blocker bill was passed. To debate any other bill, two-thirds of the Senate, 21 of 31 members, was required to agree to the suspension of regular rules, bypassing the blocker bill. Until Wednesday.
That's when state senators voted 20 to 10 to change the two-thirds rule to the three-fifths rule. Now, only 19 votes are required to suspend regular Senate rules. Republicans hold 20 seats in the chamber.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has long been against the rule. In 2007, as a senator, he tried to to kill it, ending up on the wrong end of a 30-1 vote. With his election to the state's No. 2 post in November, however, he finally had the power to get his way, using Senate committee posts to ensure the vote.
Democratic senators slammed the move to get rid of the rule. Dallas' Royce West tweeted that the change would bring "irreparable damage" to the Senate. Houston's Rodney Ellis wrote on his website that the elimination of the rule would stifle dissent.
"Instead, we've decided that if you can't win through debate, you push it through via a rules change. What we're telling our successors is to run over the other side when you can, and I don't think that's what this body is about," he said.
In addition to removing any difficulty in bringing controversial bills to the floor, the procedural changes will allow the Senate to suspend rules regarding public hearings and do business in secret if they so choose. Public participation in the process will depend on the good will of the Senate majority.
Phillip Martin, the deputy director of Progress Texas, says that the effects of the changes are less likely to be felt on deeply partisan issues -- even when HB2 was successfully filibustered by Wendy Davis, Governor Rick Perry was able to simply call a special session, which wasn't subject to the two-thirds rule, to get the bill passed -- than on issues in which there is a distinct minority that doesn't necessarily fall along party lines.
"[With the old rule] any 11 senators on any issue could have exerted influence and power, now you have to go find 13 people if you do want to exert influence," he says. "On issues of education, on issues of transportation, on issues of water, none of those are partisan issues. There hasn't been a partisan bill that hasn't advanced, that they haven't managed to pass one way or the other anyway."
Texas, Martin says, will have to rely on the traditionally raucous House of Representatives as a voice of moderation. That chamber, led by still staunchly conservative but mildly conciliatory Joe Strauss, can tap the breaks on the bills it sends to the Senate.
"Right now the conventional wisdom is, you have extreme Tea Party conservatives in the Senate, you have more thoughtful conservatives in the House and [Governor] Abbott is kind of bouncing between the two right now," Martin says. "Where we shake out is going to depend on who's best at negotiating bills and figuring out the big picture priorities over the course of the session."