With the announcement that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will not seek re-election, there is a lot of potential upheaval in the primary process and goals of the conservative GOP members going forward.
I would like to lay out some thoughts on what members should seek to do as they run and prepare for the 86th session of the Texas legislature.
Stop Creating Boogie Men
Like many, I am thrilled that Speaker Joe Straus will be gone. I am much more excited that Chairman Byron Cook will not be seeking re-election. Yet, I think this may be an eye-opening moment for many members who made Speaker Straus their primary target.
In reality, Speaker Straus was just a tool for the body. He was their protector. He shielded them from votes they did not want to take and criticism they did not want to face. There is a reason he was elected 150 to 0 last session even by the Freedom Caucus members.
Going forward, people need to focus on their representatives and their part in what happens in the Texas House. At any point, 76 House members could have joined together and changed rules or overruled the chair on any number of motions. At any point, a majority of committee members could have forced a bill to be brought before the committee, but they didn’t. If you want to change the House it is not the top you have to worry fix, but the majority of the body of duly elected representatives.
Can We Finally Blame Patrick?
There seems to be an unspoken rule among conservatives and tea party members. No matter what happens it is never Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s fault.
When he appointed Sen. Joan Huffman to chair State Affairs in the 84th and it passed fewer pro-life bills than the House no one dared to say a word. When THREE of the Republican Party of Texas legislative priority issues were never even filed in Texas Senate, the activists were mute. When the House sent a bill to the Senate that would have created the bathroom policy Patrick spent all session supporting he killed the bill to force a special session so he could showboat knowing he’d lose.
Speaker Straus used his appointees to make sure many bills died before reaching the floor. Lt. Gov. Patrick has done the same in the Senate and walks into re-election scot free of blame from the right.
The notion has been that you can’t criticize everything if you want to be effective. I say we criticize only one thing: poor leadership.
Everyone Wants A Tyrant
Many praise Lt. Gov. Patrick for the same reason they attack Speaker Straus. They love the fact that he leads the Senate with a heavy hand. Tow the line or see your bills banished.
The new cry from Tea Party Republicans for the next Speaker is the same. “Give us someone that will force our legislation through no matter what.”
All of this is wrong. If you want conservative legislation elect conservative representatives. The governor is the only one who should be single-handedly killing bills.
The role of the Speaker should be that as a leader and guide for the body. They should be working to make sure EVERY representative from Jonathan Stickland to Jessica Farrar can be heard and have an equal vote and voice in the body.
Instead of pushing for a Matt Schaefer or Jeff Leach to run for Speaker so they can push Freedom Caucus issues, they should be seeking someone that will be viewed as fair to every member.
Assuming Democrats keep their current 55 seats then they would only need 21 moderate to liberal Republicans to join them. This is how Straus was originally elected. No matter how much pressure is put on them I am not sure you can legally bound a representative to caucus vote if they are unhappy with the outcome.
The solution is to find a Republican respected by Democrats and Republicans. This is not going to be based on their voting record but on their character. The Texas House deserves someone that everyone trusts will do the right thing through the process and not as a tyrant.
The Focus Should Be On Rules
When current Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey lost the election as Travis County GOP Chairman to Robert Morrow the county took some excellent actions. Morrow was seen as a whack job who primarily wanted a pulpit more than any real leadership responsibilities. So the precinct chairs worked to change the rules to decentralize the power of the chairman. This pushed the power to the precinct level. When Morrow resigned and Dickey regained the reigns of the county party they kept the new rules in place because they knew a decentralized power base was always better in the long run.
The Texas House should operate the same way. Instead of the Speaker and committee chairs being extremely powerful rules should change to put the body in charge.
There are a couple of rules changes I would like to see.
- A limit on how long a bill passed by committee can be held without being placed on a daily calendar. This will stop the holdup and blame game that is passed around the body. “Well we passed it, but it died in Calendars.”
- If 50 members are co-sponsors of a bill that bill must receive a committee hearing and vote within two weeks of the 50th sponsor’s name being placed on a bill. This allows Democrats to also force a hearing and vote on issues they are passionate about and Republicans to have a way to bypass a committee chairman without it being seen a personal attack.
- Changes to recognition from the floor. One way the Speaker can conserve power is by refusing to acknowledge members from the floor. There should be a way that members can guarantee recognition. Perhaps five or ten members can sign a form to force recognition or some other solution.
I’m not an expert on the process. I’ve watched many debates and talked to many staffers and elected officials. These are just a few of the issues I’ve noticed or been told about. There are actually ways to accomplish much of this already in the rules, but there is a culture in the Texas House that views utilizing them as a personal attack and fear of retribution if utilized. Rules and culture must change for real options to occur.
Texas House Representatives Don’t Want Accountability
The biggest obstacle to change is that members love the protection of the system. They love that Straus can take all the flack for bills and they never have to lead.
I have many friends on both sides of the bathroom bill. Many saw Straus as a great leader for killing the bill through Byron Cook. I saw it as a complete failure of leadership. There were 80+ co-sponsors to the bathroom bill. That is a majority of the Texas House and almost all of the Republicans. Why were there so many? Because that many saw it as great policy? No, because many knew they’d never have to actually take a vote on it.
It was common knowledge that the bathroom bill was DOA. Like, other bills, this meant members could sign on to the bill and never have to actually vote for it. They never had to really defend their position. What Straus did was protect those members from blame. It allowed the conversation to continue. No minds were changed either way. It was just another campaign issue to raise money on.
That is not leadership.
We should be electing House members that aren’t seeking to hide behind Straus or Patrick’s coattails but want to stand up for what they believe and have an actual conversation and support positive policy. If there had been real leadership (and this includes in the Senate as I said earlier) a better bill could have come out that was clear, addressed real issues such as school sports teams and Title IX, and cut passed rhetoric. Yes, extremist on both sides would have had to have been dismissed. Yes, not everyone would be happy, but Texas would be a better place and the issue could be behind us instead of looming over the next cycle and possibly affecting the business environment of Texas.
So far, I am pleased with what I am seeing out of the Freedom Caucus on their goals going forward. They seem to be focused on rule changes rather than finding a personality to champion. I think that is the right direction for them and the Texas House as a whole. I hope they and many others will consider it.