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The legislation seemed unstoppable. The political party in the majority in the state capitol was hellbent on pushing through a partisan policy that no amount of reasoning, organizing or shouting was going to stop. So the lawmakers in the minority packed their bags and fled not just the statehouse, but the state entirely. The Governor threatened arrests if lawmakers didn’t get back to work.
Sounds familiar, right?
Well, that story isn’t from Texas. We’re talking about Oregon, where in 2019 and again in 2020 Republican lawmakers decided that they’d rather flee to Idaho than let Democrats have a quorum to pass climate-change legislation. Passports in hand and holed up in rural cabins, the Republicans wouldn’t come back until the ambitious climate-change legislation fell off the calendar. Democrats abandoned their dreams and Oregon’s Democratic Governor signed an executive order enacting the policies but remains subject to repeal from her successors.
But Oregon Democrats are not Texas Republicans. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s activist fight for climate change pales next to former President Donald Trump’s obsession with making it more difficult to vote in the name of eliminating so-called voting fraud that didn’t make a lick of difference in his loss last year.
It’s bad money to expect Texas Republicans to make a concession similar to Oregon Democrats’ fall-back. Republicans control Texas politics at the moment and they are betting that most Lone Star State residents support their agenda. They are in a special session pushing an agenda that would limit voting rights in addition to a laundry list of conservatives’ wishes including a ban on teaching critical race theory and reducing access to bail bonds for those accused of crimes. And judging from their ability to hold on despite new waves of blue, they may be in a very durable position this year and for years to come.
So why does anyone beyond Texas or Oregon care about these scofflaw lawmakers? The state legislatures in this country are uncomfortably uniform right now. After the 2018 elections, the number of states with divided control of the legislature hit a scant one in Minnesota, the lowest number since 1914. In other words, Red States are really red and Blue States are really blue. Minnesota remained the hold-out divided legislature again after the 2020 elections once again sent the two parties further into their partisan corners. Only 11 states don’t have their state House, state Senate and Governorship under one-party rule.
Political scientists, pragmatists and good-government nerds alike have all been bemoaning the effects of this polarization. The threat of intra-party primaries typically keeps the professional politician stuck in partisan orthodoxy. The one-party rule doesn’t set up much room for compromise. And while Democrats—in state legislatures and at the U.S. Capitol alike—believe there is a good-faith compromise to be found, Republicans have shown time and time again that there’s no incentive for them to do that. Just look at the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland that went nowhere, the attempts to win GOP votes on immigration or many economic stimulus packages, let alone middle-of-the-road tries on guns, health care or even saying Joe Biden is the rightful President of the United States. There simply aren’t a lot of—or even any, sometimes—Republicans willing to risk their hides. Those who do end up like Rep. Liz Cheney, booted from her position in Leadership, or booed like Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
Still, Texas Democrats are underfoot as of last night. They landed at Dulles Airport, outside of Washington, and vowed to stay out of Austin until the special legislative session ends. Which they can do, barring Abbott dispatching Texas police to find them and haul them back to Texas. But Abbott can similarly call another special session after this one ends, which is in his power and stands to catch a lot of lawmakers in a never-ending loop unless and until someone blinks.
Texas Democrats who hoofed it here to Washington are looking to boost the urgency of federal voting-rights legislation with their comrades who haven’t exactly embraced their calls for it. President Joe Biden is giving a speech today in Philadelphia on the matter, and he’s previously met with Texas and national lawmakers to talk about voting rights with civil rights leaders. But this simply has more energy in opposition on the Right than the Left has, thus far, been able to muster. Folks like Stacey Abrams have tried to clear the way for compromise with the proposal put forward by Sen. Joe Manchin on behalf of the centrists in his party, but it isn’t sufficient.
Trump is against it all, and thus so are Republicans, though there is exactly zero evidence that voter fraud cost Trump the election last year or made any difference in any state. Even Trump’s own Attorney General has said so. But it’s feeding Trump’s rage, and thus it is tolerated even if privately mocked at the Republican National Committee. Trump remains the most powerful figure in the Republican Party, a king-maker and prince-slayer. So if he wants voting restrictions, Republicans will give it to him.
But there’s a greater cost to all of this. Most Americans just want to believe their government can work for them. The massive government spending during COVID-19 helped a whole lot of Americans stay in their homes, keep their businesses open and figure out just how to pay the bills. Washington wasn’t perfect, but it brought stability.
Now, as it seems—probably wrongly—the worst of the pandemic is passing, and partisans are getting back into old habits. Any time politicians resort to tricks over truth to win an outcome is a tough day to stand up and defend a system allegedly rooted in meritocracy. If you’re going to lambast about the “stolen” Garland nomination, you also need to lambast Texas Democrats taking their ball and going to D.C. If you’re going to stan Texas Democrats for using their technical rules to block—or, really, delay—Abbott’s voting crackdown, then you can’t really carry too much contempt for the political theater Republicans summoned when they said without reason that Biden shouldn’t be certified as President. In the absence of morals or ethics, if you rely solely on neutral rules to govern a system, there are pitfalls if the rules remain static. Just look at the gnashing on the Hill right now over the filibuster. If you live by the rules, you also have to die by them.
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