On Tuesday evening, at 7:45, I was casually scanning my Facebook feed, where a friend in New York said that something interesting was going on in the Texas Senate.
I knew that a woman had been filibustering that day to defend Texas women’s right to safe abortion procedures, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it, considering it a noble but lost cause. I mean, this was Texas we were talking about. Rick Perry’s Texas. I posted a link to an article about the filibuster—my small contribution to acknowledge Senator Davis’s effort.
Regardless of one’s personal convictions about abortion, the evening that unfolded was an incredible display of the political process in this country. Legislators learn the system and then figure out ways to “work” it, and sometimes lose sight of their mission as public servants, which is to actualize the will of the people and defend the Constitution of the United States. Sometimes, their focus shifts to personal gain and/or personal beliefs. On Tuesday, it was the Republican party demonstrating this, but it could also just as well have been Democrats. As John Dalberg-Acton noted 150 years ago: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I clicked on my friend’s link, which brought me to a live feed on YouTube that had about 35,000 viewers. It was standard CNN-style documentation: a camera at the back corner of the room, taking a long shot of the senate chamber. Boring. People in suits were milling around or conferring in small groups. No one was saying anything; in fact, there was no sound at all.
I noted this on Facebook. “They’re discussing a point of order,” my friend posted.
Not interesting, I thought, and moved to my email. I left the window open, though, just in case they came back.
A few minutes later, they did. What I’d missed was Sen. Davis’s filibuster having been challenged for the third time. A few of her colleagues were suggesting that her discussion of sonograms—a mandatory step in the abortion process in Texas—was not “germane” to her discussion of the bill in question.
Over the course of the next two hours (the legislative session ended at midnight, and I live in the Pacific time zone), I sat, spellbound, as some senators tried to defend the filibuster by calling for parliamentary procedure inquiries, and the senate president begrudgingly allowed them, unless he felt he could get away with not allowing them, which he also did a bunch of times. As my Facebook friends and I exchanged impassioned color commentary, the ticker of how many people were tuned in kept climbing. By 8:30, it had doubled to 70,000. Then 80,000. Then 120,000.
A few minutes before midnight, Senate President Dewhurst called a vote to end the filibuster. Doing so required ignoring parliamentary procedure and, specifically, ignoring Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who had already moved to adjourn in order to block said vote. She argued that he had ignored her; he replied that he hadn’t heard her. Sen. Van de Putte, desperate for parity, asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”
The crowd erupted. The noise was incredible. The number of YouTube viewers rose. The live feed remained focused on the senate floor, but there was no mistaking the presence of hundreds of people in the gallery. After midnight, when I found other videos, I saw that the entire capitol building was packed to the rafters with Texans supporting the filibuster. More were outside. The cheering went on for a few minutes, and then a few more, and then it was clear that, ten minutes before the end of the session, they weren’t going to stop. President Dewhurst and his GOP colleagues had cheated—boldly, over and over, in front of a whole mess of Texans. And, as he should have known, you don’t mess with Texans.
There is much more to the story: Misogyny and racism are still pervasive in U.S. politics. Social media had an incredible impact on the outcome of this session. All of this is to say that this particular senate session was small-town politics writ large. I saw unfair things play out many times when I lived in the Columbia River Gorge. People in power sometimes feel like they can get away with things. Sometimes, they even feel like they deserve to.