Why the “Democratic Chairs” Kerfuffle Is Actually Important
At the beginning of the session, House leaders easily shut down an attempt to mandate only GOP committee chairs. That does not mean its success would not have transformed the House for the worse.
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Wednesday, February 1, 2023
On January 11, as the Texas House was considering its rules for the session, a group of seven conservative House members offered an amendment to require that all committee chairs be Republicans. The idea came from the phantasmagorical swamp that is the Texas GOP Platform, and right-wing activists hoped to pressure the House membership into adopting the rule.
As it turned out, House members did not even get to vote on the proposal. How it failed, and why, is an instructive story about the Texas Legislature and why it works the way it does.
When the Texas Republican Party met last summer and adopted their Platform, they included eight priorities for the coming session of the Texas Legislature. The second priority read:
Ban Democrat Chairs: To ensure all legislative Republican priorities are given a fair opportunity to become law, the Republican-controlled Texas legislature shall adopt a rule that would end the practice of awarding committee chairmanships to Democrats.
This may sound like inside baseball, but it was obviously important to the GOP delegates: they ranked it above abolishing abortion and securing the border on the list. It even ranked above criminalizing gender-affirming care, which is a particular kink for the Texas GOP and its elected officials.
To the party faithful, the logic of the proposal was undeniable: solidify Republican control over the Legislature by ending the decades-long tradition of appointing both Republican and Democratic committee chairs. That tradition extends back even to when Democrats held majorities in both chambers. In their view, a handful of Democratic committee chairs had prevented the passage of key legislative priorities for Republicans, especially school voucher bills.
The Texas Tribune reported in December that some conservatives in the House GOP caucus had pledged to bring the issue up during the House consideration of its Rules for the session.
“Our Republican voters expect us to get this done, and I am confident those who refuse to listen to their constituents will have to deal with the consequences,” said Rep. Bryan Slaton of Royse City, the freshman Republican who is the loudest opponent of Democratic committee chairs. “Republicans will not be satisfied on this issue until Democrats have zero committee chairmanships in the Texas Legislature.”
Slaton had offered the same proposal two years ago, and it garnered only five votes. But it was now a cause célèbre among GOP faithful. They hoped to pressure House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) into supporting the proposal. Failing that, they hoped that their grassroots pressure would force GOP House members into bucking their Speaker and adopting it.
(Rep. Bryan Slaton. Photo by Brad Johnson)
The conventional wisdom was that the proposal had insufficient support among members to pass. Still, publicly voting against the Party’s wishes could put disloyal members in a bad light, which could come back to haunt them in future party primaries.
Why Having Chairs from Both Parties Is Important
The stakes were high: giving Democrats some chairmanships keeps them invested in the House’s smooth functioning, even on issues they oppose. Remember, the purpose of the tortuous, multi-step legislative process is not to pass bills, but to kill them. (Some 7,000 bills are filed each session, but only 1,000 or so pass.) Put another way, it’s far easier to kill a bill than to pass one – and that’s a good thing. Even in the minority, frustrated Democrats could prevent the House from getting anything important done.
Old Capitol hands understand this. They even appreciate that this cultural difference is what makes the Texas Legislature, imperfect as it is, better than the completely dysfunctional Congress.
(House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont). Photo by Bob Daemmrich)
The Job of the Speaker
The first job of the Speaker is to protect the members – occasionally from themselves, but more often from bad bills and bad votes they might be forced to take.
Take vouchers as an example: rural Republicans generally don’t like them, because they threaten the livelihood of small towns where the school district is the center of community life (if not also the biggest employer). But support for vouchers is an article of faith for the Texas GOP and for a wealthy network of donors and financiers (looking at you, Tim Dunn). Thus, a stalwart conservative would prefer not to have a voucher bill come before the House; he or she is in a lose-lose situation.
Good Speakers and their leadership teams understand this. Which is why they came up with an ingenious solution to the problem. Knowing controversial amendments would be offered to the House rules, they added a new provision to the otherwise pro forma “housekeeping resolution” the House adopts at the beginning of each session:
USE OF HOUSE RESOURCES FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES PROHIBITED. Pursuant to Section 51, Article III, Texas Constitution, house resources may be used only for a public purpose. A house member, committee, officer, or employee may not use or direct the use of any house resources to further any political purpose. In this section, "house resources" includes appropriated funds, property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that comes into the custody, possession, or control of a house member, committee, officer, or employee by virtue of public office or employment.
The new provision was hardly objectionable, and had the added cache of directly paraphrasing the Texas Constitution. The housekeeping resolution passed with barely a murmur. But when the committee chairs amendment was proposed, it was ruled improper because it “use[d] or direct[ed] the use of any house resources to further any political purpose.” This became the fate of several silly, “gotcha” proposals, like requiring committee chairs to sign affidavits stating whether they “support Marxism” or “believe that there are only two genders.”
Thus did the whole drama of banning Democratic committee chairs, a principal policy goal of the Texas GOP, become a nothingburger when the House adopted its rules. It was a modest victory for helping the House get its work done in a grown-up manner.
No such legerdemain was necessary, or possible, in the Senate. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick included only one Democrat among his committee chairs: Senator John Whitmire from Houston, the Senate’s longest-serving member (or dean). Whitmire is running for mayor of Houston later this year, and the rumor is that he will not be replaced by a Democrat should he win, thus completing Patrick’s emasculation of the Senate Dems.
But that’s a horror story for another time.
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