A lobbyist’s perspective on why legislators file unpassable bills

Most people “don’t remember six months from now whether the bill passed or not. But they remember, ‘oh, my legislator is working in Austin, and he’s introducing bills that I agree with.’ And so that’s helpful for the legislator when they come to the next election,” says Jim Arnold, founder of Arnold Public Affairs.

By Sean SaldanaDecember 19, 2022 2:56 pm,

Last month, bill filing began for the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature. By the end of the first day, 920 bills and resolutions were filed in the state House and Senate – a new record.

One of the bills filed was HB 714, which would effectively dissolve the Austin City Council, turn the city into a new district, and turn over responsibility for governing it to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Another piece of legislation is a joint resolution that would prevent the state from further restricting abortion access, a move that would need two-thirds of the Legislature’s votes and approval in a general election to take effect.

The odds that either of these pieces of legislation become the law of the land is highly unlikely – so why file them in the first place?

Jim Arnold – a lobbyist, the founder of Arnold Public Affairs, and a professor at Austin Community College – joined the Texas Standard to help explain why legislators file bills that have slim chances of ever becoming law.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: Some of those bills that legislators filed are either infeasible given political realities or just too unpopular to pass in the context of electoral politics, right? So why do it? Why is it that we see an avalanche of bills which have the proverbial snowball’s chance?

Jim Arnold: Well, one of the things you learn as a lobbyist is not to publicly question the motivation of a legislator filing a bill.

I think there are a number of reasons people introduce bills. I can run down the list. One is to show their constituents that they’re working in Austin. Rep. [Jared] Patterson’s bill to abolish the Austin City Council did what he intended it to do – continue the conversation. The Legislature and Austin have had a very tense relationship. And how does the state and cities particularly, you know, work together or don’t work together? And theLegislature has been pretty active in the last several sessions in terms of trying to limit some of the things that cities do.

I don’t mean this to be a commentary on the person in particular who filed that legislation, but if you take a look at the legislative reference library, about one bill of every six or seven actually pass. There’s just an avalanche of bills on the first day. How much of it is about going back to your constituents, whatever party you are, and sort of having those bragging rights: “I introduced this bill”?

Right, and you know, legislators, particularly House members, have to run every two years. And so they’re constantly campaigning; even during this session, they’re constantly campaigning. And so to be able to say to this person or whatever group you’re meeting in front of, “I did this,” “I introduced this bill” – and most people don’t follow the Legislature as closely as a lobbyist or as you do, and so they don’t remember six months from now whether the bill passed or not. But they remember, “oh, my legislator is working in Austin, and he’s introducing bills that I agree with.” And so that’s helpful for the legislator when they come to the next election.

That sounds rather benign, though. I mean, is it possible that this actually contributes to public discourse or, for that matter, political polarization?

Conceivably. But for instance, the Democrats in Texas, they are the minority party. And so their constituents want to know that they still got those kinds of policy issues, whether it be abortion or whether it be Medicaid for mothers who have had children. And I’ll say this: You also know that the legislative process can take time. We often tell our clients, “This may be a two- or three-session bill. We may work on it now. We may have to work on it next session. And finally it will get passed.”

And for instance, the Medicaid coverage for mothers, that was originally a Democrat bill, probably 20 legislators each session filed that bill to extend Medicaid for poor mothers. But it became part of a package that the Republicans picked up on. And so what started out as a bill that didn’t pass for four or five sessions offered by a Democrat becomes part of the speaker’s health care package last time, the speaker being a Republican. And so maybe this session that bill’s not going to pass, but in three sessions, maybe the conversation changes.

I believe a lawmaker once told me that there have been several Republicans in the Texas Legislature who have tried to push things like what are commonly called vouchers, which a lot of Democrats see as basically defunding public schools. And this particular lawmaker was saying, “don’t look for ‘vouchers’ to appear on any of the bills. Don’t look for words like ‘school choice’ or anything like that. Look for words like ‘parent empowerment.’” I’m almost thinking that there might be a kind of reverse psychology on this: If you’re looking for bills to pass, don’t look for the inflammatory language; look for the things that might be slipping underneath the cracks. Is there something to that or no?

Well, sure. I mean, in the Legislature, just because a bill doesn’t start the process through the House and the Senate doesn’t mean in any way, shape or form that it’s dead. It can be attached to other bills, both as an amendment or during a floor debate or in the committee. And so if you’re wanting to do something that is under the radar, and particularly because of the way our session, our Legislature is structured: It’s for five months, every two years, and you can’t do anything for the first 60 days in terms of passing bills on the floor. You can have committee hearings, but you can’t go to the floor with them. So that means that in three months you really have to do all of the work.

And so it’s very overwhelming for everyone. So oftentimes a legislator is not able to read every bill, and their staffs are not able to read every bill. And certainly by May of each session year, people or legislators are adding amendments on the floor or in committees, and with very little oversight or very little time to study those. So yes, if you’re going to try and get something under the radar, oftentimes it’s better not to introduce a bill which will draw attention to it, but to try and amend bills on the floor or in committee or that sort of thing.

Talking about this stuff, I think it would be easy for a lot of folks to sort of feel cynical about the process. You’ve been around this process for a long time; I trust you haven’t become too hard-nosed or cynical yourself, but how do you keep this in perspective? 

I would say the majority of people that come to the Legislature want to do good public policy. And you may not agree politically with it, but there are a lot of good people in that building, and they want to do good things. And you know, we can argue about whether we agree with them politically or that sort of thing. But, you know, that’s why we vote.

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