The proposed House reforms: Good ideas or not?
Sat December 13, 2008 9:57 am

As most readers know, Jim Keffer has proposed several reforms for the House of Representatives, and Dan Gattis has proposed a constitutional amendment to provide a means of removing the speaker. Let’s see whether they have merit.

First, the constitutional amendment: Gattis would add this language to the boilerplate about the House electing a speaker:

The House of Representatives by rule may provide for the removal of the Speaker by a vote of two-thirds of the members elected to the House.

I would oppose this if I were a member of the House. First, I am not willing to concede that the House does not already have the inherent power to remove the speaker. When the rules do not speak clearly to an issue, they provide that resort may be had to congressional precedents, and those precedents do recognize a motion to vacate the chair. Second, while it is well established that the House may provide for its own rules, I think it is a bad idea for a rule dealing with an issue as fundamental as the removal of a speaker to be ephemoral. One year the House may include it and the next year it may omit it. That is the nature of the rules. We all know that the speaker influences the writing of the rules, and if the House MAY provide for removal of the speaker, what speaker is going to allow the rules to provide for his own demise? Third, Gattis set the bar too high. One hundred votes is insurmountable. Fifty-one votes can block it, and there are 42 committee chairs and twenty-six members of Appropriations and eight members of Calendars (not counting the chairs of these committees).  I think it should be 76 votes. That is the number necessary to elect a speaker. Why should it be harder to remove the speaker than to elect him? It is a lot easier to stay speaker than to be elected speaker. All you have to do is preside in a reasonably even-handed way. Craddick hasn’t been able to do that, and that’s why he’s in trouble. But there are circumstances other than overreaching in which being able to oust the speaker by majority vote might be important. Suppose, for example, that the Democrats win a 76-74 majority of the House in 2010, but that two seats become vacant and Republicans win the special elections. Should the Democratic speaker continue to preside when the majority has changed? The Republicans should be able to vote the speaker out and take control. 76 votes.

Now for the Keffer reforms:

* Apportion the leadership position by party “in proportion to the parties representation in the House and [to] reflect the diversity of the State of Texas.”

This is a good idea under the present circumstances. I’m not sure it would be a good permanent practice. Using party strength to allocate leadership positions, while well intentioned, moves the House one step closer to a formal division by party – something I hope never happens, but which I fear is inevitable.

* Selection of a temporary House parliamentarian to serve on the opening day of the session.

This is a one-shot reform to get rid of Terry Keel. Go for it. I just wish someone would tell me the procedure for 150 people who haven’t taken the oath of office at the time the temporary officers are appointed by the Secretary of State to remove the temporary parliamentarian.

* House rules [should] guarantee recognition of all members for questions of privilege, points of order, and appeals of rulings during the session.

As much as I oppose Craddick’s power grab, I don’t agree with guaranteeing recognition for all questions of privilege. A motion to adjourn is highly privileged. No speaker in my memory has treated it so. Members who seek to make that motion are usually told, “Not at this time.” I have been told that the tumultuous 1961 session featured frequent fights over motions to adjourn. I think the speaker has to retain the ability to move the legislative process forward.

* A three-term speaker term limit.

I generally oppose term limits as artificial constraints on talent, but I make an exception in this case – not because of Craddick, but because long speakerships are not good for the House. They bottle up talent. Members stay in their positions. And stay. And stay. And there is no way for talented junior members to move up. Look at Pete Gallego. He should have had the opportunity to be chairman of Appropriations. The House grows stale under long speakerships. I saw it happen under Laney.  It’s even worse under Craddick,  because there is no back door to his doghouse. You never get out. But term limits are no magic bullet. A lobbyist who struck up a friendship with the speaker in a state that had term limits told me that the restriction resulted in a perpetual speaker’s race, with candidates taking pledges one, two, even three sessions into the future, and the speaker always maneuvering with his potential successors to cut a favorable deal for himself.

Ban direct and indirect contributions from the speaker in elections against sitting members of the Legislature.

This is one of those cases in which bad facts make bad law. Craddick uses his control of money to control members. It’s a bad situation, and if he loses his speakership, it will be a strong contributing factor. But I think singling out one member and prohibiting him from making contributions is a bad idea. The way to cure this problem is to eliminate the source of the problem.

* End the practice of special interest groups and lobbyists meeting with House members in the speaker’s office during floor debate.

A proposed rules change in 2007 would have banned lobbyists from the back hallway. Opponents argued that the speaker had the right to meet with whomever he wanted. Even if the speaker is using these meetings to pressure members, my view is, “That’s politics.” I wouldn’t try to regulate it by rule.

* Ban lobbyists and political consultants from serving on legislative transition teams.

Whatever went wrong with Craddick’s speakership, it wasn’t because Messer, Miller, and Ceverha were on his transition team. People who have influence with a speaker because of long years of friendship are not going to cease having it if they can’t serve on a transition team. This is a cosmetic fix that won’t affect anything except appearances.

* Ban the practice of using the appropriations bill to reward patronage.

You might as well ban the practice of politics.

I appreciate what Keffer is trying to do. In my experience, you can’t legislative good behavior. Craddick brought to the office of speaker all of the accumulated grievances of thirty-four years of being on the losing side and a sense of entitlement that the members owed him their loyalty, not the other way around. He can’t change that now, and no rule can make him change.

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