Like so many failed enterprises before them, Democrats in the Texas Legislature are heading to Washington in search of a bailout.
Democratic House members are reportedly fleeing Austin and the special session that Gov. Greg Abbott initiated last week, aiming to stop an election-law bill even as it gets more innocuous by the day. If they do, the House will lack enough members to operate under its rules, and if they like their accommodations enough to stay for a few weeks, they could kill the session entirely.
For nearly three decades, in election after election, Texas Democrats haven’t been able to stop Republicans at the ballot box. So now, they’re asking the masters of dysfunction in DC to do it for them.
There’s irony, of course, in soliciting federal Democrats for relief from the alleged abuses of a legislative majority. Democrats who control the U.S. Senate by one vote and the U.S. House by five see a mandate to remake the entire nation, spending trillions of dollars the country doesn’t have and federalizing election laws.
Republicans and some courageous Democratic moderates who are thinking beyond the next election cycle will use the filibuster to stop them. To progressives, that’s a grotesque violation of our democracy.
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But shutting down the entire work of a whole branch of state government? Heroic.
House Democrats did this at the end of the regular session, which is how we got here. But leaving the state is replaying the greatest hits of 2003, when groups of lawmakers fled again and again to stop Republican redistricting.
Nostalgia is a helluva drug, so that episode is often cast as a heroic stand against a power-hungry regime of Republicans that had been swept into power for the first time in more than a century. But those Democrats were defending the right of Democrats to control most Texas’ seats in the U.S. House in a state with a clear Republican majority.
To put it another way, they were for gerrymandering before they were against it.
It didn’t work then; Gov. Rick Perry kept calling lawmakers back until the work got done. Abbott will relish doing the same. And by setting him and the Republicans in the Legislature as the bulwark against Washington overreach, Democrats might as well be on a false-flag mission to sustain the Texas GOP majority.
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Any time legislators are fighting over the mechanics of elections, it’s about power, period. Democrats believe they need the broadest possible voting rules to have a chance to win in Texas. Republicans pushing the new bill seem to believe that more turnout dooms their chances, even though the last couple of election cycles disprove the case, and academic research disputes the notion that more votes is automatically better for Democrats.
What’s more repugnant, of course, is the fantasy spread by a certain former GOP leader that huge vote-rigging operations are undermining our democracy and must be rooted out. Bottom line: The Texas elections bill is largely unnecessary.
But it’s also, at this point, pretty mild sauce. Republicans appear to have abandoned the truly noxious provisions from the Legislature’s regular session.
By fleeing, Democrats lose any high ground. Rhetorically turning two weeks of early voting and reasonably flexible mail-ballot rules into Jim Crow Redux strikes all but the most intense partisans as overkill.
And shutting down the Legislature — again — means Democrats own at least some of the fallout. Abbott has vetoed the funding for the legislative branch as a leverage play. If lawmakers don’t stick around and vote to restore it, thousands of staffers will be furloughed on Sept. 1, when the new state budget year begins.
Some may see Abbott’s hardball as unfair, but that’s politics. The solution for Democrats is to win more elections.
Maybe then, they’d finally stick around and do their jobs.