Every two years, state lawmakers arrive at the Capitol to bring shiny new legislation to life – and a lot is proposed. More than 10,000 bills and resolutions were filed during this year’s legislative session alone, all ready to change the world through the wonders of the democratic process.
But the session lasts for 140 days, or 3,360 hours. That’s hardly enough time to get through every bill. And at this point in the session, only two weeks remain to get bills to the finish line.
But time isn’t their only enemy.
“There’s an infinite number of ways in which a bill can fail to become a law in the Texas system,” said Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project, a research group out of UT Austin that conducts statewide polls.
He said lawmakers possess an arsenal of deadly weapons that can butcher bills and kill them altogether. Danger lurks at every political twist and turn.
“Each step in the legislative process provides a few, if not multiple, avenues to kill a bill,” Blank said.
The life of a bill begins when a lawmaker introduces it. Next, if legislators are lucky, their bills are sent off to committee, where they’re discussed by a small group of lawmakers. That group will decide whether or not to send the bill on to the full chamber (either the House or Senate, depending on where it was introduced).
But before a bill can be debated by the full chamber, it must survive the calendar committee, or the group that literally sets the agenda for the House and Senate. If a bill makes it onto the calendar, it’ll go to its respective chamber for debate. If it doesn’t, it’s basically dead in the water.
Any bill that survives the calendar committee is amended, debated and voted on. If it passes, it will head to the other chamber, where the process repeats.
If changes are made to the bill in its second chamber debut, it goes back to its starting chamber to be voted on again.
Sherri Greenberg is the assistant dean for state and local government engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. She was a Texas representative for 10 years.
She said bills are challenged at every step of the legislative process.
“What I say is to visualize the Olympics,” Greenberg said. “Somebody is running the hurdles, and they get over one hurdle, and then there’s another and there’s another. That is what it takes to pass a bill.”
One particularly high hurdle is something called a point of order.
A point of order occurs in the chamber when a representative points out a violation of the rules along a bill’s journey. If the legislator is right, the bill has to be sent back to committee so the error can be corrected.
Greenberg remembers the first time a point of order killed her bill.
“That was a big learning experience for me,” she said. “After that, I checked all my own bills, had experts check them and had them check the entire process.”
She used all that experience to grow as a lawmaker, even calling a point of order on other bills.
“Knowing the rules is a big advantage,” Greenberg said. “Understanding them, knowing them, knowing how to use them, knowing what our points of order are and to look for the experts to help you.”
A point of order isn’t necessarily a death blow for all bills. A committee can send them back to the chambers for consideration yet again.
But that leaves these bills vulnerable to the most deadly killer of all.
“Another way that bills die is related to the clock and the short legislative session,” Blank said.
One sure way to kill a bill is to just wait for it to fall off a deadline cliff.
Or maybe even give it a little push.
Lawmakers often turn to chubbing, a poorly named, distant cousin of the filibuster.
Blank said chubbing gives lawmakers a chance to use the ticking clock to their advantage.
“Chubbing is the process by which legislators engage in this extended debate around legislation simply to eat up the available time to consider bills,” he said.
It’s the political equivalent of distracting a teacher so much they don’t have time to hand out homework before the bell rings.
Chubbing plays a big part in guiding legislation, especially for the minority party. Lawmakers are forced to carefully pick and choose what to do with their precious time.
“Chubbing is really more often than not a tactic used by the minority party to limit the number of bills that the majority party can pass as soon as the session winds down,” Blank said.
It only works because of the relatively short session.
“This is not an issue in legislative tours that meet continuously,” Blank said. “But in Texas, where the legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, eating up time actually does take away from the time available to consider more legislation.”
In 2021, 10,000 bills and resolutions were proposed. Only 3,804 passed.
And that’s how the system was designed to work.
“The process is not made to push legislation through the process too quickly, in order to prevent ill-considered laws,” Blank said.
The Texas Constitution was made to keep government small, Greenberg said.
“It was to be a government at the lowest level possible, a minimally invasive biennial legislature,” she said.
Bill death also doesn’t necessarily mean the policy is gone for good. It might come up in other sessions.
Greenberg advises lawmakers to keep that in mind.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” she said.