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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Published: 8/15/2003

Tall tales from Texas

“What with one thing and another,” says Molly Ivins, our irrepressible columnist from Fort Worth, “it's hard to embarrass Texas.” Maybe so, but politicians down in the Lone Star State are doing a pretty good job.

Republican leaders in the Texas Senate are threatening fines of up to $5,000 a day for 11 maverick Democratic members who have fled the state to scuttle a second GOP bid to redraw congressional districts - to elect more Republicans.

In a fit of hyperbole, Gov. Rick Perry is claiming that the Democrats' refusal to cooperate in their own political undoing is a “constitutional crisis.”

Even the Texas Supreme Court didn't buy that tall tale. The court rejected a petition from the governor to force the lawmakers to return to Austin from their self-imposed exile in Albuquerque, N.M.

Similarly, a redistricting attempt failed in June when 51 House members turned tail for Ardmore, Okla. Under the state constitution, neither legislative chamber can conduct business without a specified quorum.

That frustrates legislative leaders but a constitutional crisis it is not. Rather, the Texas dustup is a prime example of what happens when a legislative majority gets too big for its britches and sets out to turn domination into humiliation.

Republicans hold solid majorities in both the Texas House and Senate, but they're not satisfied. They want to erase the Democrats' 17-15 edge in the state's congressional delegation, even though district boundaries were set by court order after the 2000 census.

The driving force behind this effort is U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader in Washington, to whom compromise is a dirty word. Mr. DeLay, a former exterminator, doesn't just dislike Democrats: He wants to squash them like bugs.

So it was no surprise that Mr. DeLay and the Texas Department of Public Safety tried to enlist the help of federal authorities in locating the Democratic legislators in June. A report by the Department of Justice's inspector general says requests were made to the FBI, U.S. marshals, and the U.S. attorney's office in San Antonio. For the most part, they said no, although an FBI agent did telephone one of the lawmakers he knew as a friend.

One official said the prospect of federal officials intervening in a partisan dispute struck him as “wacko.” And probably illegal, too. In addition, running roughshod over the opposition is a ham-handed tactic, which only perpetuates the cycle of partisan ill will.

That was the case last month in Congress, when Rep. Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, actually called Capitol police to break up a meeting of Democratic members protesting a complicated pension bill that had been sprung on them at the last minute.

No one was arrested, and Mr. Thomas later was forced to apologize. But the unprecedented incident did nothing but stoke partisan fires.

And so the cycle continues. What goes around will surely come around when the other party regains power, whether it's in the nation's capital or a state like Texas.

Representative democracy requires a modicum of respect on the part of both majority and minority. Coercive measures like huge fines and calling the police to enforce a particular agenda only serve to damage the political process.



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