The Liberation
Wed January 7, 2009 1:05 pm

I have covered the Texas House of Representatives since 1975. What I love about the place is that, traditionally, it is has been an open shop. The culture of the House is that you can do what you are big enough to do, whether you are on the team or off, in the majority party or the minority. As a member, Tom Craddick thrived in this culture. He helped educate young Republican members about the process, and he huddled with his disciples in the back of the chamber orchestrating floor strategy. He made alliances with Democrats, most notably, Sylvester Turner. Then he became speaker and everything changed.

He centralized decision-making in the speaker's office. He divided the House along party lines—not formally, but by excluding Democrats from from positions in which they could be effective, and by allowing the Calendars committee to load up the agenda with ideological issues that were certain to intensify animosity among the parties. I didn't realize that this was deliberate until I heard a story recently about the debate last session on Sid Miller's bill to protect historical monuments. Marc Veasey and Senfronia Thompson attacked the bill as being designed to protect Confederate monuments. A heated two-hour debate ensued, and at some point Miller asked Craddick if he wanted him to pull the bill down. Craddick's response was, "No, keep going." Incredible. Craddick wanted discord, because it kept the Republicans antagonized against the Democrats (and vice versa).

But this is not an article about Tom Craddick. He's history. It is an article about the ABCs and Joe Straus. In the Dark Ages of Craddick's speakership, the ABCs were monks who inscribed the great works of antiquity and preserved the knowledge of the past. They knew what the House was supposed to be like, and what a great institution it could be when allowed to function as a truly representative body, instead of the embodiment of the will of the speaker. Now they have the opportunity to bring their vision of the House to life.

I have written a couple of articles that might be considered negative—one in particular about their not being sore winners—but on the whole I am very optimistic that the ABCs are primarily motivated by their desire to restore the institutional memory of the House and to create an atmosphere of civility in which the problems of the state can be addressed notwithstanding partisan divisions. I think that their choice of Straus may turn out to be brilliant, because he is the only one among them who begins with a clean slate, with no carryover animosities. They want to liberate House members from bondage—to let them vote their districts, pass their local bills, and chart their own destinies, without direction from or retribution by the chair.

They are not pollyannas. The rewards will go to those who brought about the revolution. That's politics. The leaders of the Democratic opposition and the ABCs are the new leaders of the House. Beverly Woolley will not be chair of Calendars. Phil King will not be chair of Regulated Industries. Warren Chisum will not be chair of Appropriations. But they, and everyone, will have a chance to rise or fall on his or her own. No one in the new regime will be banished in perpetuity, the way the ABCs were under Craddick.

This is the culture, the old you-can-do-what-you're-big-enough-to-do culture, that Straus and the ABCs want to recreate. It is not going to be easy; the hardcore right of the Republican caucus may emerge as a permanent opposition. Already there is bold talk that Straus will be a one-term speaker, of a holy war in the 2010 Republican primary. The only beneficiary of this circular firing squad will be the Democratic party.

There are some signals Straus can send that will reassure members on both sides of the aisle. I have already mention dealt with the "sore winner" syndrome in another post. He can reach out to the members who were the targets of an advertising campaign by gambling interests in the Republican primary, such as Betty Brown, Phil King, and others, to assure them that the days of a speaker working against Republican members in primary campaigns is over. He can undecorate the speaker's apartment, turning it into a reception room and offices, to signal that he has no intention of becoming an imperial speaker. And the surest way to signal that a new day has arrived is to do everything possible to give members the committee assignments that they want, even those who were not with him in the beginning. I'm optimistic. And that's a word I haven't used much since January 2003.

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