Feb. 14, 2014 -- A Houston state representative and the parliamentarian of the Texas House presented a fast-paced and lighthearted overview of the legislative process Friday to students of the University of Houston Law Center.
State Rep. Sarah Davis, Law Center Class of ’01, and Chris Griesen walked the lunch-hour audience through the birth, life, and oftentimes death of a bill. Speaking to Professor Tracy Hester’s Statutory Interpretation 1L class, the two alternated in describing the seven-step flowchart for getting a bill to the governor’s desk. Steps included introduction and referral to a committee, committee action, scheduling on the legislative calendar, floor action, sending the bill to the Senate or House, depending on where it originated, reconciling different versions, if necessary, in a joint conference committee where it can emerge for a vote or die, and finally to the governor.
In drafting legislation, Davis said some representatives “sit and think” about how laws should be changed or initiated, but 90 percent of hers are “constituent-based,” meaning residents in her district have come directly to her with a problem or issue they feel needs to be addressed. Her District 134 includes West University Place, Bellaire, the Memorial Park area and the Texas Medical Center. As a member of the Public Health Committee, she noted she represents more doctors than any other House member and deals with their health concerns as well as issues involving the medical center. The second term legislator is also a member of the Calendars Committee and the powerful Appropriations Committee. “We spend your money,” she said with a laugh.
Griesen said bills drafted by representatives and their staffs are “cleaned up” by Keebler elves, 45 attorneys who work for the non-partisan Texas Legislative Council, helping with the wording and ensuring the legislation meets all rules and passes constitutional muster. Griesen said more than 5,800 bills were filed in the House and Senate during the last session, requiring oftentimes lengthy and contentious committee hearings. “There is always somebody opposed to everything,” Davis said, even the most innocuous bills. And, she said, “There is a lot of politics going on,” to which Griesen responded, “Politics? I’m shocked!” Bills are modified as they go through the process, amendments added and others dropped, he said, “like a fat man eating a sandwich and leaving a trail of crumbs behind.” During the process of getting legislation to passage, the speakers said, there is much “strategery” and even some “shenanigans” going on as the bills are carefully cobbled together with some left “purposely ambiguous” to be decided ultimately by the courts.
Griesen said it generally takes two 140-day sessions to get a bill passed and of the nearly 6,000 bills filed in the last session, only 1,409 new laws were made, roughly 25 percent. Some laws, he said actually have been on the books unchanged since 1925.