The Best and the Worst Legislators

“They had only one thing to do, and they didn’t do it.” That’s the epitaph of the regular session of the 70 th Legislature. The task, of course, was to solve the state’s budget crisis. They didn’t even come close. In fact, the three leaders-Bill Clements, Bill Hobby, and Gib Lewis-couldn’t agree on how much the state is spending in 1987 until seven days after final adjournment.

The failure to deal with the budget overshadowed everything else that happened this session. In fact, the best news may have been something that didn’t happen: The piles of bills aimed at emasculating the education reforms of 1984 never got unstacked. No pass, no play remains intact. So does the career ladder for teachers. The only setback was the loss of mandatory subject matter testing of teachers, something pusillanimous politicians had long ago abandoned anyway.

Positive accomplishments are not so easy to find. The Legislature did act on four high-profile issues—deregulation of trucking and AT&T, abortion, and, n a brief special session, tort reform. Whether it acted meaningfully is another question. The deregulation bills merely flipped the decision from the Legislature to a couple of state agencies that have had the power, but not the inclination, to deregulate their industries all along. The abortion ban applies only to third trimester abortions and only some of those. The tort reform-insurance reform package is the strongest of the four, but it is far short of what its backers envisioned at the start of the session.

As disturbing as the lack of progress was the deterioration of process. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion that members of the Legislature are supposed to come to the Capitol and vote? No one wanted to cast a controversial aye or nay this session. And so the concept of the shotgun compromise was born. Legislators and lobbyists with controversial bills were sent off to back rooms and told to negotiate with their opponents. If they didn’t reach an agreement, there would be no vote. The Legislature’s function became not to debate but to ratify. “I’m so tired of being told ‘Work it out,’” said one lobbyist. “The next time I get a request for a campaign contribution, I’m going to say, ‘Work it out with your opponent first.’”

Perhaps the Legislature is just plain worn out. The regular session really began last summer, with the two special sessions to raise taxes. The mood of those sessions, characterized by partisan enmity, carried over to this year. Now the odds are good that the budget crisis will keep lawmakers in session most of this summer. A year-round session: the Legislature is working as long as Congress, for a tenth the pay.

All these factors made our task of compiling the list of Best and Worst Legislators more difficult than usual. We followed the session in the House and in the Senate, in committee and on the floor; we talked to legislators, staff, lobbyists, and members of the Capitol press corps; we were there for the post-midnight sessions on the budget; and yet the nature of the session was such that we saw few opportunities for heroics or villainy. Our lists, therefore, revolve more around personality than events. They are primers on why some people succeed and others fail at the art of politics.

Our criteria are the same that legislators use to evaluate each other. No ability is more prized by a politician than his skill at judging people. (A former legislator named Sam Johnson once told his son, Lyndon, “If you can’t walk into a room and tell right away who’s for you and who’s against you, you have no business in politics.”) Legislators don’t want to know whether a colleague is conservative or liberal; they want to know whether he is open- or closed-minded, smart or dumb, honest or venal, industrious or lazy, trustworthy or treacherous.

A legislator on the Best list uses his good qualities to the fullest. He wants to be at the center of action, and his colleagues want him there. He must be a student of the process—its rules, its rhythms, its reins of power—and the better student he is, the more respect he earns. Negative qualities alone are not enough to relegate a legislator to the Worst list. It is the aggressive use of badness that is fatal.

The changing character of the Legislature is reflected in the high turnover on our Best and Worst lists. Only senators Ray Farabee of Wichita Falls, a Best, and Craig Washington of Houston, a Worst, reclaimed their places. The people who joined them were very different from their counterparts of 1985. The nine new Bests did not dominate the session as their predecessors had done, but they were a hardier species who thrived in poorer soil. The new Worsts, on the whole, are less malevolent than the group they replaced-misfits instead of roadblocks. Maybe that’s because there can’t be any roadblocks in a session that has no traffic.

The Best

Kent Caperton, 37, Democrat, Bryan

This was a session when nothing happened, when nihilism seemed to be the guiding principle. Only someone forgot to tell Kent Caperton. Short and baldish, with and impish smile and unprepossessing presence, Caperton is a bantamweight with a heavyweight’s punch, the dominant senator of the session.

His list of accomplishments included strengthening the Open Meetings Act, at which he has labored for years; cosponsoring the successful trucking deregulation bill; killing one of the session’s worst proposals—a bill to exempt industry from air pollution inspections; getting an alimony bill through the Senate (it died in the House); and offering the budget amendment that restored higher-education funding to its 1985 level, thus setting the terms for that part of the budget debate.

And that’s just what he did in his spare time. His heaviest labors took place over tort reform. He and sponsor John Montford of Lubbock spent hundreds of hours negotiating a compromise that could pass a sharply divided Senate, in the face of

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