House rules will address removing the speaker
Fri January 23, 2009 3:13 pm

The rules debate will probably take place on Wednesday, one day after the governor's State of the State address. Last session it took 8 hours and 48 minutes for the House to adopt its rules. Democrats raised legitimate concerns about confidentiality and attorney-client privilege, due to former Republican operative Milton Rister's stewardship at the Legislative Council. Rister is still there. Another contentious issue last session was whether to ban lobbyists from the back hallway, or from the speaker's office, when the House was in session. It is going to be interesting to see whether those concerns will arise under a speaker not named Craddick.

The most essential change is to undo the Keel/Craddick ruling of last session concerning recognition of privileged motions. The body has to have the recourse of removing the speaker by majority vote. Readers will recall that Keel crafted an argument that Craddick was an officer of the state and could only be removed by impeachment. (The Texas Constitution provides as well that the House can expel a member by a 2/3 vote.) Personalities aside, I do not see how a member of the legislative branch of government can be an officer of the state, a description of an executive nature. Craddick argued that his duties made him an officer of the state, but if you strictly construe the question of what is an officer, you should look not at the duties but at the nature of the office, which is that a legislator represents 1/150th of the state and therefore cannot claim to have a statewide portfolio. Another absurdity of Keel's claim that impeachment was the only method of removing the speaker was that in the case of impeachment, the House could vote to impeach but trial would take place in the Senate, so a majority of the Senate could override the will of a majority of the House.

As I understand it, the rules will establish a process for the removal of the speaker. It will require that a certain number of members file a document calling for removal. The threshold should be 76 members. It should not be a supermajority because the speaker is not elected by a supermajority. The petition, or whatever the document is called, provides notice to the speaker, and after a specified time, the vote will take place. This gives the speaker time to round up his votes. (I have not seen the proposed rules; this is a summary of a couple of conversations I have had with members.)

Three important issues will involve the Appropriations committee. One is whether seniority will be respected on the committee. The rules adopted in 2007 specified that seniority would not apply. Surely Straus does not want to change this, as the previous committee was topheavy with Craddick loyalists. Another issue is whether Straus wants Appropriations to be made up entirely (except for chair and vice-chair) of CBO's--the designated Chairmen for Budget and Oversight of the substantive committees. I understand why speakers like this system. If they can appoint 35 to 40 chairs, vice-chairs, and CBOs, they will have made between 105 and 120 members happy. Throw in 11 slots on Calendars and seniority appointments for veteran members, and you have a good shot at making every member happy.

And the downside? Well, you wind up with a weak Appropriations committee, like the one Craddick had last session, full of inexperienced or ineffective members who aren't really qualified to be chairs. Straus would be well advised, in a session in which the budget is likely to be the most contentious issue, to dispense with the CBOs and stock the committee with talented members. But if he wants to be reelected, and what speaker doesn't, employing CBOs is the way to go.

The rules must also address the number and jurisdiction of committees. The obvious choices are whether to merge committees whose jurisdictions were split by Craddick: Ways & Means and Local Government Ways and Means; and State Affairs, Regulated Industries, and Civil Practices. As Straus appears to prefer fewer and larger committees, mergers seems likely.

Yesterday, Solomons took the microphone after the session to discuss the process for distributing the proposed rules, which he said would occur on Monday morning, after he spent the weekend cutting and pasting. Phil King went to the back microphone to point out that the Conservative Caucus had set a meeting for Monday night to discuss the rules and urged that they be distributed as soon as possible on Monday. The exchange was totally civil, but the message King seemed to be delivering is that conservatives intend to come to the rules debate ready to do battle. It would not surprise anyone if they had a proposal making it easy to knock off the speaker. The two major parties in the House are still the Craddicks and the anti-Craddicks. We will know a lot more about how the House will function in the Straus era after Tuesday.

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