Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Davis Filibuster

One of my favorite episodes of The West Wing is one towards the end of season two called The Stackhouse Filibuster. It's Friday night in The White House, and the West Wing staff and White House press corps are awaiting the Senate passage of The Family Wellness Act. What looks like a sure victory is thrown into chaos when Senator Howard Stackhouse commences a filibuster that lasts for hours, so that he can get an amendment added to the bill.

On Tuesday night in Texas, a real life filibuster took place that Aaron Sorkin himself couldn't have written better.

It began, as so many political controversies do these days, with a piece of legislation in Texas that sought to limit abortion rights. The bill was called an omnibus bill, which means that rather than take up a specific issue - say, mandatory ultrasounds or waiting periods - it bundled nearly all the anti-choice legislation that had been introduced during the Texas legislature's regular session into a single measure to be voted on during a special session called by Texas Governor Rick Perry with the sole purpose of passing this particular bill.

In addition to a ban on all abortions after twenty weeks, the bill included, among other things, requirements that all abortion providing doctors have admitting privileges in a hospital within thirty miles of where the procedure is being performed and that all abortion providers be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers.

According to Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the requirements of the bill would be so costly for existing Texas abortion providers to implement that all but five of the state's forty-two abortion clinics would close, essentially wiping out access to abortion for women living in poorer, rural areas of the state.

By all accounts, the bill was going to pass the Texas Senate, and, having already been approved by the House, it was almost certain to become law, something Governor Perry and the Texas Republicans were counting on.

But there was something they didn't count on.

They didn't count on Texas Democratic Senator Wendy Davis.

At 11:18am on Tuesday, Senator Davis stood up and began to speak. In order to become law, the bill had to be voted on and passed before the clock struck midnight and the special legislative session ended, so Senator Davis vowed to hold the floor until then.

In Texas, the rules of a filibuster are a bit more complex than those in the federal legislature. You won't hear cookbooks and phone books being read. In Texas, the representative conducting the filibuster has to speak to the topic of the bill as long as she wishes to hold the floor. She can yield for questions but can't leave the chamber for any reason. Not to rest, not to eat, and not to use the bathroom. She can't lean on anything and she can't sit down. And in a "three strikes and you're out rule," once she amasses three rule violations, her opposition can end the filibuster.

Clad in pink sneakers for comfort, Senator Davis stood for hours and read testimony from abortion providers and personal accounts of Texas women and women from around the country. She explained what the effects of the proposed law would be, answered relevant questions and stayed ruthlessly on topic, determined to outlast the session.

And all over the country, people were watching via a live feed from the chamber.

They watched as she received her first strike - called out for going off topic by discussing Planned Parenthood's budget, despite the fact that budgetary issues for abortion clinics were a central effect of the Texas bill. And they watched as she received her second for getting assistance by a fellow Democrat in fastening a back brace.

As the day wore on, and the word got out over social media that something amazing was happening in Texas, the numbers watching the YouTube live feed grew and #standwithwendy was the top trending topic on Twitter.

I followed the Twitter feeds all the way home from work and when I walked in the door around 8pm eastern time, I went straight to the TV and turned to CNN, where I was certain they would be reporting on this. Anderson Cooper's regularly scheduled show had just started and it seemed he was reporting on everything BUT Texas.

So it was back to Twitter, which stayed open on my phone all night as the news from Texas continued to pour in.

Around 11, I read that she had received her third strike by mentioning sonograms. Even though Texas and twenty other states have some law on the books regulating sonograms by abortion providers, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who was in charge of the vote, ruled that sonograms were not related to the bill in question, and moved to end the filibuster.

Twitter went crazy. Protesters started filling the chamber and the Texas state house chanting "let her speak." Fellow female Democrats jumped to Senator Davis's aid in protest to how the filibuster was ended. Senator Davis stayed standing, unsure of whether the filibuster was over and determined not to yield the floor. And still, people around the country were getting their news from Twitter and the live feed because all the 24 hour news networks were airing reruns of their evening shows.

At midnight on the east coast, the debate was still raging on whether the filibuster was over, a new Republican took control of the vote, and after trying desperately to be recognized, Texas Senator Leticia Van de Putte stood up and said "At what point does a female senator need to raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?"

The gallery in the Senate chamber was on fire, Twitter was manic, and the chair couldn't restore order. With only fifteen minutes left in the special session, it looked like the orange-clad Wendy Davis supporters were picking up her filibuster where she was forced to leave off, and carrying it to the end.

Then the clock ran out. At midnight Texas time, 1am on the east coast, Twitter exploded with victory tweets that were suddenly peppered with reports that a vote was being held, even though it was now after midnight and the legislative session had expired.

Then the AP reported that the vote was over and the bill had passed, 17-12. All over social media, people were going insane. It seemed the strict parliamentary procedures only applied when something was happening that the Texas Republicans didn't like. Because when they wanted to get something done, little things like time and rules and science didn't seem to matter.

Same story, different day.

Assuming that it was all over, and that it would probably be better if I wasn't an absolute zombie at work in the morning, I fell asleep, in awe of Wendy Davis and what she attempted to do. Outraged that yet another bill championed by Republican men was passed that gutted our rights to control our own bodies and minds.

Turns out, I probably should have stayed awake.

Because when I checked Twitter in the morning I was greeted with the news that the bill did not pass and, in fact, was dead.

I spent my entire commute to work reading stories of protesting Wendy Davis supporters taking over the state house, broken rules, falsified legislative records, and hours long closed door meetings.

It seems that the Texas GOP decided that they could hold a vote after midnight, change the legislative record  to make it look like the vote took place before midnight, and no one would notice. But this is the age of Twitter, screen shots, and instant news, so everyone noticed. Scrolling back through my feed to see the overnight Tweets, there were hundreds of side-by-side screenshots with two different versions of the legislative record, one showing the bill passing after midnight, and one showing it passing just before. There were links to Vines showing throngs of protesters in the state house. And, finally, links to a video of Cecile Richards announcing that the bill was dead and Wendy Davis coming out of the chamber, smiling.

And unexpectedly, I found myself close to tears as I sat on a train hurtling towards Manhattan. Because for a minute, I wasn't outraged by yet another bill gutting women's rights. I wasn't infuriated by the Texas GOP lying and cheating their way to a victory. I wasn't thinking about the fact that Governor Perry would almost certainly call another special session later in the summer for another shot at this legislation. And I wasn't thinking about the hypocrisy of the Texans who desperately wanted this bill to "sanctify life" cheering the state's 500th execution that was, quite literally, hours away.

There would be time to think and feel all of those things later. But not just then.

Because for a minute, I was inspired. I was inspired by a woman who stood for more than twelve hours to protect the right to choose. I was inspired by masses of people who gathered in the Texas state house to protest injustice. And I was inspired by people all around the country who stayed up all night so that they, too, could join the fight.

I know that the victory might be short-lived, and that there are certain to be more fights ahead. But for the first time in a long time, I'm hopeful. Because a fierce Texas woman is standing up. And we are all standing with her.

Thanks Wendy.


  1. I am SO GLAD you wrote about this! I have never stayed up to watch something political, but that night after hearing the buzz on twitter, I watched the Youtube live feed until the end, way past my usual bedtime. It was incredible! I've never been more proud of being an American. I have half a draft written about the experience; if it goes to press, I'm definitely citing this post because you lay it out so clearly!

  2. Thank you for writing this! I love reading your posts about legal things since it's way out of my area!

  3. Thank you seems like such little words for the well "spoken" words that you have laid before us. Informative words that made it easy for me to understand and wrap my brain around. And work that spoke of my new heroine and her 13 hour endeavor.
    Again,thank you, have helped me see this in a less confusing like.

  4. Great piece on this subject. I found myself downright exhausted this week just thinking about all the really important stuff going on. I had to take a step back. I watched some of the coverage, but there was no way I could stay up until 1am on a work night (OK, really any night). It's utterly unbelievable what women have to fight for in this day and age.

  5. What a great summary of the event. Thanks!