A play-by-play of Wendy Davis’s filibuster, and why it made such great, heartening, and depressing absurdity TV.
Image from Flickr via Ann Harkness
By Rachel Riederer
Tuesday night at 1 a.m., I couldn’t tear myself away from the Texas state senate. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d say, but I wasn’t alone. Toward the peak of the action in Austin, over 100,000 people were watching the live stream feed of the state legislature on YouTube. (It was not carried on any cable news networks.) When I went for a bathroom break—something Wendy Davis, the senator responsible for the one-woman filibuster, was not able to do for 13 hours—I took my laptop with me to make sure I didn’t miss any news. What made this so compelling? After all, this was basically the state-level version of CSPAN, a venerable network certainly, but not the type of program you’d expect to be in danger of binge-watching.
SB5, a bill that would limit access to abortions in Texas by mandating that all abortion clinics become ambulatory surgical centers and that all abortion providers have admitting rights at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic (effectively forcing many to close because of expense and location) and would set the cut-off for abortions at the gestational age of 20 weeks, was scheduled for a vote this Tuesday, during a special legislative session called by Governor Rick Perry. To stop the bill from going to a vote, state senator Wendy Davis planned a filibuster, and showed up to the state house in already-iconic hot pink sneakers. Filibustering in the Texas state senate is not like in DC: it’s actually difficult. One senator has to hold the floor for the entire time. She cannot leave the chamber for any reason, lean on anything, move around the room, receive assistance or “comfort” from any of her colleagues, or have a drink of water. And—perhaps the most salient difference—the senator’s speech must actually be relevant to the bill in question. The filibusterer can get two warnings for straying off-topic, and on the third digression the legislature can end the filibuster and vote on the bill. Texas rules are serious: no phone-book reading allowed.
Rules are what make sports work as entertainment. They provide a framework within which opponents can strategize and react to each other. And they turned Tuesday night’s legislative action into a kind of sport.
That the issue is one where emotions run high on both sides, and that Wendy Davis has a compelling personal story (single mom at 19, community college, Harvard Law, back to Texas to serve in local government) and star qualities (expressive delivery, a deep reservoir of eloquence and poise, and Khaleesi-meme-ready tresses) that make her infinitely watchable, are only part of what made this legislative procedure into such a sensation. Early on in the day, Davis read testimony submitted by constituents about their experiences with reproductive health—testimony that, she said, women had not been allowed to give during the regular consideration of the bill. These arguments were moving, but they weren’t what made the rest of the evening so fascinating—it was the arcane, obscure rules of Parliamentary procedure.
The most important rules are these: Members of the senate can challenge whether the content of the filibuster is “germane” to the bill itself, though the scope of “germaneness” is not clearly defined. After that third strike, the Senate can do a simple vote to end the debate and vote on the bill.
Rules are what make sports work as entertainment. They provide a framework within which opponents can strategize and react to each other. And they turned last night’s legislative action into a kind of sport.
Davis’s filibuster began at noon. In the late afternoon Republicans raised a flurry of points of order, challenging the “germaneness” of Davis’s speech. Several points of order were overruled before Davis received her first warning—for talking about the Planned Parenthood budget. This was the moment it started to get juicy for the folks watching at home. To rule that the Planned Parenthood budget is not “germane” to a discussion of a bill that would close most of the state’s rural Planned Parenthood clinics seemed ludicrous. But the referee ruling on these points of order was himself a player in the game: Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a supporter of the bill.
In response to the flurry of points of order, Kirk Watson, a Democratic leader in the state senate and Wendy Davis’s trustiest sidekick, began asking a series of friendly questions that gave Davis some time to rest. (The filibusterer can yield to answer a question without giving up the floor or ending her filibuster.) Watson’s questions seemed well-timed; about 6 hours into her non-stop speech, Davis was looking tired, wiping her brow and speaking more slowly. Watson’s questions were carefully crafted so that there could be no question of germaneness—just about every third word he spoke was “SB5.”
Davis was on a roll and responded to request after request with the same response, somehow both spine-tingling and deeply bureaucratic: “I will not yield at this time.”
Senators on both sides continued poring over the rulebook. It’s worth noting that these rules are almost as unknown to the senators themselves as to us civilians—for all complicated questions the Lieutenant Governor conferred with a mysterious woman in a white suit, who was referred to in the proceedings only as “the Parliamentarian.” In the next point of order, a Republican senator argued that Davis had violated the rule against “standing alone” because she was wearing a back brace that a colleague had helped her to put on. To be clear about the level of minutiae here: the challenge was issued—and sustained—not because Davis was wearing a brace while standing for her 13-hour speech, but because a colleague had helped her to put it on.
That was Davis’s second strike, and there were still hours to go til midnight.
For a long stretch, Davis seemed to have a second wind, speaking freely and with ease about the complications of pregnancy, the hardships that SB5 would impose on women by limiting access to a procedure to which they have a legal right. Every so often female senators would ask if Davis would yield for a question, emphasizing their credentials, “even for a question from a senator who is a woman and a physician?” Watching from home, I assumed these questioners were of the supportive Kirk Watson variety, but without the footage being mediated by expert commentary, I couldn’t be sure. Whatever their intentions were, Davis was on a roll and responded to request after request with the same response, somehow both spine-tingling and deeply bureaucratic: “I will not yield at this time.”
It was impossible not to wonder, “Can this really be how it happens?”
The final blow to the filibuster came around 10 pm, when Dewhurst ruled that Davis’s discussion of mandatory ultrasounds was not germane to the bill.
At that point Democratic senators lined up to run down the clock with a long series of protocol questions—which, according to the rules, must be answered before the business of legislating can proceed. With minutes to midnight, a vote was about to be called, and it seemed that Davis’s filibuster had been defeated. Then Leticia Van de Putte (who had missed most of the filibuster to be at her father’s funeral but showed up in the evening to play a crucial role) and was struggling to be heard in the growing chaos, asked loudly and firmly “at what point must a female raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”
The gallery full of spectators—which had already burst into chants and cheers at various points during the day—erupted into a sustained roar. It drowned out the voices of the legislators on the floor. It lasted until midnight.
Officials tried to clear the gallery, but the hallways of the capital building were so filled with bodies of other spectators and supporters that there wasn’t room to move.
With just a few moments left until midnight, a vote was called. When spectators saw what was happening, the roar shaped itself into a chant: Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. The vote continued, with senators shouting their votes or running up to the rostrum to try to be heard. The vote was completed after midnight, with a majority voting to pass the bill. Democratic senators surrounded the rostrum holding up the faces of their cell phones like at a rock concert, only instead of fandom the glowing screens were reminders that midnight had come and gone before the vote was completed, and the special session was already over.
For something of such consequence to be decided in such a game-like way (not to be confused with sportsmanlike, which this absolutely was not) is deeply unsettling.
As the chamber quieted down and cleared out, legislators milled around, none sure what had actually happened. Journalists walked up to senators to ask if the bill had pass, and nobody knew the right answer. Several hours passed before Dewhurst stated that the vote was void, and blamed the defeat of the bill on “an unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics.”
That all of this happened in such a dramatic fashion seems to be a symptom of governmental absurdity. During the conversations about back braces and the endless parsing of parliamentary rules, it was impossible not to wonder Can this really be how it happens? After all, one of the things that makes sports enjoyable is the fact that the consequences—the real life consequences—are minimal. You get to experience tension and anxiety and catharsis and joy, but the day after Game 7 you get to go to work and receive health care and live in your house as if nothing has changed, because actually, nothing has. Public policy, on the other hand, is not a game. At least it isn’t supposed to be. And for something of such consequence to be decided in such a game-like way (not to be confused with sportsmanlike, which this absolutely was not) is deeply unsettling.
Of course, in the end, the people won by breaking all the rules—shouting over the calls for order and threats of arrest. They physically prevented the Senate from voting by packing their bodies into the state house, shaking its floors with their stomping feet and drowning out the roll call with their voices. This outburst was very in keeping with the spirit of filibuster rules: the idea that all votes are equal—unless someone is so impassioned that they are willing to do more than cast a vote, they’re willing to stand up and speak publically and undergo some physical discomfort—to put themselves on the line a bit for a cause they really believe in. And if they’re willing to do those things then their vote counts extra. Same rules go for the “people’s filibuster.”
Rachel Riederer is Guernica’s Daily editor.