The Dreaded Two-Thirds Rule and the Killer Bees
The biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate was trying to circumvent the Senate’s two-thirds tradition in 1979. The bill that set it off would have set an early date for a Texas presidential primary. The idea was to give Texas a stronger voice in the presidential nominating process.
We were in the middle of a contentious session in 1979. There was a well-organized and determined minority of Democratic senators who were fighting what they considered to be anti-consumer legislation. They were using every tactic in the book to block the legislation they opposed. One tactic was the filibuster. They had developed a tag-team variation on filibustering that could keep the talking going for days. I started calling them the “Killer Bees,” because no one knew when they would strike next.
There were enough votes in the Senate to pass the presidential primary bill, but not the two-thirds vote necessary to suspend the Regular Order of Business. I had to get the bill to the top of the Senate Calendar so I could lay it out without needing a two-thirds vote. We had already tried bringing up an election bill that could be amended to change the presidential primary, but the “Killer Bees” saw that coming and filibustered until midnight, after which only House bills could be considered without suspending another rule.
I gave notice that I would lay out the Regular Order of Business on Friday, May 18. That meant that the primary bill would be at the top of the calendar. It could come up and pass on a majority vote. Bad idea.
The opponents of the primary bill feared that Republicans would vote in the Republican presidential primary for former governor John Connally, who was running for president in 1980, then vote for conservative Democrats for state and local offices in the Democratic primary that would occur later in the year.
The whole thing was a fiasco. In protest twelve “Killer Bee” senators flew the Capitol to break a quorum. The “Worker Bees,” who stayed behind, spent each session haranguing the absentees, since we didn’t have the quorum necessary to transact any business. And we were in the very last weeks of the session with lots of legislation in the pipeline.
Before long, the Worker Bees put a call on the Senate. This action required all absentees to return. The Worker Bees sent the Texas Rangers to net the Killer Bees wherever they had flown. The fact was, for several days the Killer Bees had been hived up in Dora McDonald’s small garage apartment. Dora McDonald, Sen. Carl Parker’s chief of staff, lived only blocks from the Capitol. Her guests passed the time playing cards, arguing, and listening to each other snore. The Worker Bees continued to harangue them from the Senate floor.
One senator, Gene Jones, left the hive—he wanted to see his granddaughter. The Rangers heard that Jones was home in Houston. Photo in hand, they knocked on his door. A man who looked a lot like the picture opened the door. The Ranger asked him if he was Jones. He said yes. They arrested him and took him to Austin. He was Jones all right, but not Gene Jones. They had arrested Gene’s brother, Clayton. When the knock came at the door the senator had jumped over the back fence and stayed lost for another day.
After a few days I repented my ways (and still do) and the Bees returned to the hive. The bill never passed. It wasn’t a very good idea anyway. Neither was putting a call on the Senate. I can’t imagine what I was thinking. John Connally, a former Texas governor who switched parties in 1973, was a spectacularly unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, netting only one delegate, an Arkansas woman who became known as the “$11 million delegate.” That was what Connally’s campaign cost.
Some years later, the Killer Bees celebrated their anniversary at Scholz Beer Garten in Austin. I sent the Rangers to bring them to a reception in the Capitol. Clad in a beekeeper’s hat, I greeted them from the rostrum.
The Senate rules are designed to create an orderly process that respects the rights of individual members. They have lasted this long because they do the job well and consider the need for compromise in the legislative operation. Trampling the rights of the minority is never a good idea, but despite my bad experience, it has happened over and over again.
In 2003, Tom DeLay, who was then majority leader of the U.S. House and a congressman from Sugar Land, Texas, decided that the legislature should again redistrict Texas seats in the U.S. House. No matter that this had just occurred, as ordered by law, in 2001. In 2002 voters had elected sizeable Republican majorities on both sides of the rotunda, and DeLay saw an opportunity to freeze Democrats out for years to come.
The regular session in 2003 ended in stalemate, but Republican Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back in the summer to redistrict. Once again the minority saw no way to defeat DeLay’s redistricting plan on the floor. So fifty-two Democratic representatives took a chapter from the Killer Bees and flew away—this time to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the Texas Rangers had no jurisdiction. Senate Democrats likewise took flight for Albuquerque, New Mexico. The absence of more than one-third of both houses broke a quorum and business stalled. This earned the absent Democrats the nickname “Killer D’s.” They had to come back, however, and the redistricting bill passed into law.
DeLay got what he wanted. Of the ten Democratic congressmen he had in his sights, only three were re-elected. Four were defeated, one decided not to run again, one lost the primary, and one switched parties.
Frequently, people criticize the Senate’s two-thirds rule. There is no rule called the two-thirds rule and never has been. In 2007, a freshman senator, lacking in manners as well as sense, inveighed against the custom at length on his first day in office. The Senate voted 30 to 1 against changing the custom. New members of the club shouldn’t try to change its traditions. Anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea anyway.