Among the many things that offended me about the events on the closing day of the Texas special session, one of the most offensive was Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst blaming the Senate gallery for a breakdown of decorum and decency.
Thinking about decorum and decency, I have no quibble with Governor D that the gallery abandoned decorum after sitting quietly for more than 12 hours. Yet, it was reported that until the last 15 minutes, they had been so quiet you could hear a pin drop on the Senate floor. The gallery’s hold on decorum was lost at the same time the last remnant of parliamentary decorum was thrown under the bus, specifically when the presiding gavel-wielder of the Senate (Senator Robert Duncan) refused to recognize Senator Leticia Van De Putte. The gallery – finally deciding that riding roughshod over women had its limits – reacted with chants of “Let her speak,” decorum be damned. So in my humble opinion, an understandable breakdown of decorum.
What about the breakdown of decency Governor D mentioned? I’m not sure what decency means to Governor D – he is an odd duck, after all – but Merriam Webster defines decency as “conformity to the recognized standards of decent or proper behavior.” I’ll agree that it’s not customarily considered proper to yell out from the gallery of the Texas Senate. But when did it become proper behavior to misinterpret the rules of an institution in order to get your way, something the Lt. Governor did repeatedly to stop the filibuster? He didn’t just stretch the rules to stop Senator Davis from continuing to speak, he and his lieutenants made a mockery of them. The 25-year old rule book was thrown away, as one long-time Capitol observer told me. (Must read, by the way, Harold Cook.)
Before Tuesday, the Senate filibuster rules and past interpretations of those rules provided that a speaker couldn’t be disqualified from continuing her filibuster unless there were three sustained points of order holding that the speaker strayed from the topic of the bill. A filibusterer in Texas cannot just hold the floor with reading the phone book as one in Washington can do. Hence, her comments must be germane, in legislative lingo, to the bill under consideration. In Senator Davis’s case, she was held to the three-strikes-you’re-out rule, but none of the sustained points of order were instances in which she had strayed off topic. The specific points of orders to her filibuster on a bill about abortion restrictions and women’s health care were these:
1) It was not germane to speak of Planned Parenthood’s budget;
2) It was impermissible for a colleague to help her fasten a back brace; and,
3) It was not germane to speak of the restrictions imposed last session regarding sonograms.
Clearly, there were not three non-germane points of order, as Senator Zaffarini noted in her late night point of order. The second point was a violation, presumably, of the Senate rule that prohibits a senator from leaning on her desk, eating, or receiving any assistance from a colleague during a filibuster. Accordingly, a fellow-senator’s assistance with the brace was an unfair strike against Senator Davis, because she had not requested the assistance — he instinctively helped her out as any southern gentleman would. Shouldn’t that be a strike against him, not her?
But back to the first point, it’s hard to imagine anything more germane to evaluating the passage of a bill that would require the upgrading of facilities to surgical center standards (as SB 5 did) than a discussion of the financial capabilities of these facilities to perform the upgrade. Does Governor D think that happens with fairy dust? Money and budgets are at the core of the issue. No facilities would need to be closed if money were a non-issue.
The third point of order was just as bogus as the first. Senate Bill 5 imposed restrictions on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion, closing the Roe v. Wade window of 24 weeks to 20 weeks, along with spelling the demise of most of the state’s clinics where abortions are currently performed. Yet, it was ruled off topic for her to have mentioned the abortion requirement imposed upon women during the last session of the legislature, i.e., that a woman have a pre-abortion sonogram and wait 24 hours before having the actual abortion procedure. Not only is that germane to the topic of restricting abortions, but considering the two laws in concert, S.B. 5 would create the situation of women having to travel long distances and spend at least a night in another city since the nearest center had to close. This is absolutely germane and something that any lawmaker would presumably want to consider when imposing a new restriction on top of another one.
So, back to the subject of decency. Is it decent to treat a woman differently than you would have treated a man? Whether that was what Governor D did, I will not decide here, but Wendy Davis who has spent quite a bit of time in the Senate says that the leadership would not have ruled so dismissively had she been a man.
What is absolutely indecent, however, is why Governor D did what he did. He first asked Governor Perry to add the subject to the call of the session solely for the purpose of furthering his political career. His plan was to wave S.B. 5 around as a feather in his cap as evidence of his true conservatism to tea partiers who had supported Ted Cruz over Dewhurst in the U.S. Senate race. And for this reason, he was bound and determined to get the bill passed by hook or by crook. Women’s health care and their rights as full-fledged citizens — capable of making decisions about their own bodies — meant nothing to him other than a pathway to power. And when you use women’s bodies as a means to an end, that is an act of violation not unlike rape. So let me ask Governor D whether it is decent for a powerful man to stand up at a podium and gavel a woman down in order that he can have his way with her, and thereby, all the women of this state?
Because that’s the way it feels, Governor Dewhurst. That’s why the women in the gallery started yelling. They were tired, after more than 12 hours of witnessing the act you and your lieutenants so overtly perpetrated against Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte, and women all over this state. A woman can be scorned only so long before the furies of hell are unleashed.
I can’t help but recall Clayton Williams who ran for governor against Ann Richards in 1990. His attitudes on women and their bodies were encapsulated in his offhand remark comparing bad weather to rape, ”If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” Needless to say, Ann Richards won that election.
May Wendy Davis follow in Governor Richards’ footsteps (in whatever footwear she chooses) and let the Republican leadership know that they can expect a breakdown of decorum and decency whenever women are being burned at the stake, raped with impunity, or treated as second class citizens! We will not relax and enjoy it, no matter how inevitable the circumstances!