You want a real Mr. Smith goes to Washington moment? It’s no Mr., and it wasn’t in Washington. It was Tuesday night in Texas, where state senator Wendy Davis attempted a thirteen-hour filibuster to keep SB5, a draconian abortion restriction that would shut 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics, from becoming law.
It was riveting to watch. Never do you become so invested in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure as when someone is filibustering a measure like SB5. In Texas, a filibuster requires you to stay upright (no leaning!) and stay on topic with no more than three non-germane strikes. “Yes, that’s germane!” you start shouting. “No, we cannot have order! Ask more parliamentary questions!”
When State Senator Letitia Van De Putte asked, “Parliamentary question, at what point does a female senator need to raise her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?” the room erupted.
The night concluded with a wall of noise from protesters preventing a roll call vote on the measure from being completed until after 12 a.m., killing the bill.
It was almost like watching basketball, except the stakes were the lives and choices of thousands of women. So, just what dozens of male conservative legislators would probably call “a fun low-stakes game.”
This wasn’t democracy in action, exactly. It was parliamentary procedure in action. But it was still a stirring sight.
As a general rule, when someone tries to sneak something past under cover of darkness, it is not because they believe it would be wildly attractive by daylight.
And that’s exactly the case with the abortion restrictions that were being dragged through the Texas legislature. The controversial measures did not pass during the legislature’s regular session, but Gov. Rick Perry (R) added the anti-abortion legislation to the docket of the special 30-day session — in spite of the 80 percent of Texans who did not think focusing on abortion was a good use of the special session’s time and the majority of Texans who opposed the bill — throwing the Democratic minority and pro-choice advocates into a frenzy as they worked to block a vote. It was a silly and alarming week by turns. There was the moment when State Representative Jody Laubenberg described rape kits as though they were some kind of pregnancy-ending measure. Because these people are just the ones you want legislating their way into your womb.
It all culminated in Davis’s eleven-hour filibuster, which ended amid questions of procedure and the roars from protesters packing the hall who managed to delay a vote until 12:03 a.m. The lieutenant governor of Texas confirmed Wednesday morning that the bill was dead.
Instead of succeeding in putting one over on the women of Texas under cover of darkness (yet, anyway), this rushed session drew national attention to the cause. President Obama even tweeted to “#StandWithWendy,” saying that “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”
And it was special. “The leadership may not want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me,” Davis tweeted before starting her filibuster.
Yes, a filibuster cuts both ways. The same rules of parliamentary procedure that stop this bill today could stop another one you actually agreed with tomorrow. A vocal minority can’t get its way all the time, or we’d have chaos. But this was just a handy reminder that — hey, women are not a minority, in spite of the stubborn insistence of many state legislatures on treating them like one. Never mind all the jokes about “if I wanted to hear a woman spend 11 hours complaining about how no one was listening to her, I’d visit my mother for half an hour.” This was a case of the minority in the legislature standing up for everyone.
There’s something stirring about a filibuster. It makes dramatic and visible one of the questions of democracy — what if the majority tries to put one over on the minority? What recourse have they?
In Texas, they’ve got Wendy Davis.