The storied history of Texas special sessions

by | Jul 7, 2021 | Politics, Texas Legislature

Ask any Texan who’s been around the block and they’ll tell you: Special sessions aren’t so “special” around the State Capitol. That’s because, despite their moniker, the legislative assemblies — which essentially function as politics’ far, far less entertaining version of overtime in sports — have been almost constant in Lone Star lawmaking. To that point, Greg Abbott is hardly the first governor to bring his legislators back for some additional time together. In fact, he’s the 34th executive in state history to do so. 

To grasp just how outsized a role special sessions have played in Texas politics, you have to take a long look at their history here. The first governor to deploy the practice was Peter Hansborough Bell, a military man who ran on a platform focused on the state’s claim to New Mexico and bolstering its frontier defenses in the 1849 gubernatorial contest. In 1850, Bell called two additional assemblies to push through his priorities, a thrust that in part led to the Compromise of 1850

The 161 years since have been littered with special sessions — 124 of them to be exact. These gatherings, which have convened a whopping 59 different Texas Legislatures in total, have revolved around a range of policy priorities. Sam Houston held one in the first weeks of 1861, just months before he was eventually forced out of office for opposing Confederate secession. Oscar Branch Colquitt, whose resistance to prohibition in the early 1900s earned him plenty of enemies at the Capitol, embraced a profoundly combative relationship with the legislature during his two terms as governor. Beyond vetoing half of the bills sent his way, Colquitt called four special sessions in a span of three years while directing lawmakers to weigh in on more than 150 topics for consideration

Those efforts paled in comparison to that of William P. Hobby, though. After succeeding the recently impeached “Pa” Ferguson in 1917, Hobby (who, at 39, was the youngest governor in state history at the time) beckoned state leaders back to ponder 490 different topics. Among his many legislative priorities was “an act to regulate the sale of cocaine and other drugs,” along with revising the state’s civil statutes “so as to provide for the appointment of a guardian of a person of unsound mind or a habitual drunkard.”

The list goes on. William P. Clements called six special sessions between June 1989 and June 1990—a record that’s still yet to be broken. Ann Richards used hers to fight for a variety of prized ambitions, including bolstering free public schools. And Rick Perry, who was no stranger to extra legislative time during his four terms as governor, presided over a series of especially notable special sessions in 2013. It was during that summer that Wendy Davis’ staged her legendary filibuster to protect women’s health care and abortion access. 

The point is this: Greg Abbott’s reliance on special sessions isn’t unique to Texas politics. Nor is his weaponizing of the practice to push through bitter, destructive policies that hurt everyday Texans (see Perry above). But what is different about the governor’s decision to bring back the 87th tomorrow is the sheer danger of his priorities. Namely, an agenda that’s determined to deliver legislation centered around censoring history (critical race theory), attacking Texas’ most marginalized people (athletics bans targeting trans youth), and a latest assault on women’s health care (“abortion-inducing drugs). Then there’s his revival of SB 7, the staggering voter suppression bill that Democrats killed in late May by breaking quorum. If passed, it would become easily the most anti-democratic election law in the country — a disturbingly impressive feat considering the recent Georgia and Florida bills signed by Govs. Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis, respectively. 

Indeed, the stakes of this special session are unprecedented. And it’s fair to assume that Texas Democrats, voting rights activists, and a myriad of advocacy groups will descend upon the State Capitol with a tenacity that hasn’t been seen since 2013. There’s even been rumblings of a second quorum-breaking by liberal lawmakers if need be, a wise move given how high the odds are stacked against them in the GOP-dominated governing body. But with Abbott and his lackeys fully embracing a brand of authoritarianism this state has never seen before, it’s also fair to wonder just how long the outmanned and outgunned opposition will be able to hold their aggressors at bay. 

One thing’s for certain: Prevailing during this special session will require a Herculean effort that, if successful, could go down in history as a paradigm-shifting moment in Texas politics. 

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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