Everything Is Illuminated

Ever wonder how and why we choose our best and worst legislators? (And why it always smells like someone’s cooking sausage?)

July 2007By Comments

The impulse to make best and worst lists is sown in the nature of man. By the time my firstborn had reached the age of three, she had established her own pecking order for McDonald’s, Burger King, and Jack in the Box. If you walk into any high school, everybody knows who the best and worst teachers are. Lawyers make it their business to determine the best and worst judges at the courthouse. Quarterbacks know who gets the ball on third down; basketball coaches know who should take the last shot. Some of these lists—best-sellers and the Top 40, for example—are determined objectively. Others, like Texas Monthly’s biennial assessment of the best and worst legislators, are more subjective; nevertheless, they seek to reflect a consensus among the experts—in our case, the people who do business at the Capitol. Politics is like any other profession: Its practitioners have to know whose word they can trust, who can solve difficult problems, who gives good advice, and who doesn’t.

This edition of the list marks the eighteenth time that we’ve sorted through the Legislature’s good and bad. The inspiration for the original story was a widely circulated piece by Nina Totenberg in a now-forgotten magazine called New Times that named the ten dumbest members of Congress. Texas Monthly’s founding editor, William Broyles, wanted our story to be positive as well as negative, and that has been the template ever since. The first list, in the post—Sharpstown scandal year of 1973, was based on members’ general reputations and was full of juicy quotes from unnamed lobbyists and legislators. Over the years, the list has come to reflect the impact that lawmakers have had on the session, for better or worse, and quotes from anonymous sources have been phased out in favor of events that are part of the public record.

The original Best and Worst story was arguably the most important article in the history of this magazine. (I take no credit for this, having been a Senate staffer when it was published.) It represented the first time Texans took note of us—it ran in only our sixth issue—and it staked our claim to challenge the way the state’s newspapers covered Texas politics. The premise, which remains valid today, is that party and ideology are not the sole determinants of political outcomes; the third leg of the stool representing legislative effectiveness is character. The newspapers may say that Senator Smith argued for a proposition and Senator Jones argued against it, but they never tell you that Senator Smith is highly admired by his peers while Senator Jones is known as an old windbag. In a legislative setting, how you’re regarded is everything. As an old Capitol saying goes, “You bet on the jockey, not on the horse.”

The most important exercise in choosing any list is determining the criteria. My colleague Patti Hart and I share certain assumptions about the story, the foremost of which is that the list is real. It exists. It floats around in the ether, in those stately chambers and high up in the dome, and our job is to snatch this elusive shared perspective of lawmakers and lobbyists and staffers out of the air and reduce it to words. The second assumption is that we evaluate lawmakers according to the standards by which they judge one another, not by the standards of the media. New Times regarded dumbness as the ultimate character flaw, but Texas legislators are willing to excuse the mentally challenged so long as they remain quiet and stay out of the way. The same standard applies to “furniture,” the legislative term for backbenchers. Those who know their limits are blameless. Finally, we have certain boilerplate requirements in addition to legislative skill: For Bests, they are integrity, intelligence, and capacity for hard work; for Worsts, doing active harm, having tainted motives, or bringing embarrassment upon the body.

Perhaps the most difficult issue we face is to apportion the weight given to means and ends. Another hoary Capitol jest is that there are two things one should never see being made: sausage and legislation. The question thus becomes, Which is more important—the taste of the sausage or how the sausage is made? The substance or process of legislation? Focusing too much on how the sausage is made, I admit, runs the risk of rewarding those who produce bad sausage efficiently. Some thought we made precisely that mistake in 2003 by naming Arlene Wohlgemuth to the Best list after she passed a bill to privatize social services. Under the circumstances—a nearly $10 billion budget shortfall—we thought the attempt to save money was warranted. As we know now, privatization was a disaster. But notwithstanding this sobering example, I continue to believe that process trumps substance—that if people act fairly and in good faith, the outcome will take care of itself. Long ago, a House member made the Best list for the forthrightness with which he carried a package of controversial bills raising interest rates, while a senator who carried the same package of bills made the Worst list. The representative made a credible case for the bills, while the senator did not.

When the Best and Worst story was in its infancy, the question of substance versus process was easy to resolve. Texas was still a Democratic state. The majority party had conservative and liberal wings, but there was general agreement about priorities, and the battles were over how far and how fast the Legislature should go in pursuing them—“not very” being the answer in both cases. Republicans were too few in number to make a difference, so they aligned with conservative Democrats and bided their time. Good legislators were those who could make the process work. It was possible to find a consensus about which bills, and which lawmakers, were “good” or “bad.”

I admit to spending a little too much time pining for the good old days—which, even in mid-pine, I realize weren’t so good after all—but I see no alternative to giving process more weight than substance, even (or perhaps I should say especially) in today’s highly charged partisan atmosphere. I have come to view the Legislature not as an efficient problem-solving machine but, rather, as a giant pressure valve. Problems arise and build up pressure and discontent among the citizenry: high taxes, bad schools, uninsured families, polluted air, illegal immigration—the list is endless. The Legislature’s role is to let the pressure escape, to serve as a forum for the people, in the words of the First Amendment, “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The discontented bring their grievances to the Capitol, and the Legislature releases some pressure by holding hearings and releases more by passing legislation. The process isn’t designed to solve the problem, which, more often than not, is intractable; it’s designed to satisfy the citizenry that its concerns have been heard and acted upon, however imperfectly.

The best example from this session is the moratorium on the Trans-Texas Corridor. The roads are going to be built. We have to have them. But the public was so angry with the arrogance of the Texas Department of Transportation that the Legislature had to take action. I watched four members of the Best list— Senators John Carona, Steve Ogden, and Tommy Williams and Representative Lois Kolkhorst—wrestle with how far to go in reining in TxDOT this session. Many lawmakers were still angry about the mammoth bill that created the Corridor in 2003; they voted for it without really knowing what it did. This time, the substance of the bill was secondary to the four lawmakers’ ability to win the trust of their colleagues, which they were able to do.

Inevitably, there will be voices raised in protest to our selections as Bests. In 140 days, no one is going to be perfect. Kolkhorst, Ogden, Carona, and Williams each have their detractors. Some will say they didn’t go far enough. Some will say that they went too far. Years may pass before we can properly assess the results of their efforts. But together they addressed a real problem created by bad legislation and an agency that was out of control. They appear to have found the golden mean that restrains the abuses while allowing most projects to go forward. They allowed public anger to vent. What more could you ask of a Best Legislator?

This year’s process of choosing the best and worst involved two issues that were specific to the Eightieth Legislature. One was how to deal with the leadership. The precedent set in 1973 was that the leadership—the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker—should not be eligible for either list. The reasoning was that the two presiding officers, and to a lesser extent the governor, influence a vast array of issues, far more than individual legislators. We made an exception in 2003, naming David Dewhurst a Best for his leadership on school property tax cuts and the budget. This year, however, the single fact about the Legislature that stood out was the failure of the leaders. We concluded that they all belonged on the Worst list, in part due to their individual shortcomings and in part due to their collective shortcomings, none greater than their inability to work together. The lack of achievement of the session, and the persistent criticism from members aimed at the three leaders, speaks for itself.

The second problem was how to deal with the challenge to Tom Craddick’s speakership in the House, which started out as a largely Democratic effort but expanded to include Republican dissidents and even some committee chairs. Did any of the insurgents deserve to be Bests? Worsts? How about Honorable or Dishonorable Mentions? In the end, we decided to give “the insurgency” as a group an Honorable Mention. They did dominate the session. They did weaken Craddick. But their group came apart in the final days by squabbling over the spoils—who should be the next Speaker?—before becoming the victor and in resorting to a silly impromptu walkout.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m in the mood for some sausage …

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