The Ten Best and (Groan) The Ten Worst Legislators

It is a cliché around the Capitol that each legislative session has a personality unlike any other. Even clichés can be right on occasion, and this was one. The 69 th Legislature was a surly child that had been dragged along to a place it did not want to go for the purpose of doing things it did not want to do, and by golly, somebody was going to have to pay for it. In the end it did what it was supposed to, but not before bruising a lot of feelings and a few fists as well.

Three things affected the collective temperament this session: money, Republicans, and the memory of last summer’s special session on education reform. The state’s tight fiscal situation contributed mightily to the grim looks on lawmakers’ faces. Most politicians don’t like to tell people no; this session they had little choice. The unpleasantness was exacerbated by the fear that Texas is nearing the end of the oil era and ought to do something to plan for the future. Empty treasury or no, the Senate wanted to invest millions in high-technology programs, mainly at UT and Texas A&M, while the House clung to a we-can’t –afford-it posture.

Which brings us to the rise of the Republicans, or to put it another way, the decline of the conservative Democrats. The realignment election of 1984 added 15 new Republican seats to the House, swelling GOP numbers in the lower chamber to 52—more than a third of the membership. Many of their gains came at the expense of conservative Democrats, and those who survived never forgot it for a moment. For the first time, conservative Democrats began to see themselves as dinosaurs, and they did not view their prospective extinction with equanimity. They made nervous jokes about how the new Republicans want government only to defend the shores and deliver the mail, but they didn’t joke at all about their own party, which was trying to foist on them a presidential primary bill that would have accentuated the Democrats’ liberal drift. Kent Hance’s switch to the GOP hit them hard; they sprouted buttons advertising, “We would rather fight than switch.” Meanwhile, the Republicans proved themselves shrewd and able politicians by not voting as a bloc but letting their numbers act as an incentive to cut spending and frivolity.

The hangover from the education reform session was the biggest factor of all. Last summer was the Legislature’s finest moment in years, maybe ever. Veteran members returned to Austin knowing that they had already done the most important thing they would do in their careers. What’s more, they had already dealt with the only issues ordinary Texans seem to care about: education, highways, taxes. The session began with no sense of urgency, no feeling that anything just had to be done, no reason except a budget to be there in the first place. It was anticlimactic from day one. Passions were spent not on issues but on personal hostilities; there were more fistfights and near fistfights than anyone could remember, and one legislator even treed a student during an outdoor protest of tuition increases.

Despite the gloomy atmosphere, the Legislature came up with a session to be proud of. For that we can thank the much-maligned Texas constitution and its equally maligned injunction that the Legislature meet every two years for no more than 140 days. All the ingredients were present for a stalemate: torpor, factionalism, the absence of pressing issues. Had the Legislature been a year-round body like Congress, we still wouldn’t have a water plan or a budget or a hazardous-waste law or dozens of other good bills that are headed for the law books. The deadline provided the urgency that nature had omitted, and the Legislature lurched toward its destiny almost in spite of itself.

Under the pressure of time, the philosophical and party rifts became an asset. Compromise was the only way to beat the clock. Consequently, although this was the most conservative Legislature in recent times, its product was also one of the most balanced in recent times. There seemed to be something in everybody’s stocking: indigent health care (passed during a brief special session after it became the one thing that time really did run out on) and a hunger package, tough new crime laws, the first glimmerings of environmental concerns in a water plan, a leaner bureaucracy, decent if not lavish funding for universities, even a consumer bill or two.

That augurs well for Governor Mark White, who faces reelection in 1986. Never mind that White had little to do with the session’s success. He has never bridged the gap between electoral and legislative politics; he paints with too broad a brush, full of generalities when dealing in an arena where all the battles are over specifics. On subject after subject, on fee increases, blue laws, funding for indigent health care, a telephone tax adjustment, White’s waffling led to controversies that could have been avoided. Did he want a cigarette tax to pay for indigent health care or didn’t he, and why wouldn’t he make up his mind? (When he finally did decide-nix on the tax- it was the Friday before the session ended). But if he isn’t very good, he at least is lucky. Mainly, he’s lucky that the House and Senate are in good hands and can insulate him from having to lead.

Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby is the best thing that has happened to Texas government since the oil severance tax. He has the best vision of what Texas should be, the best understanding of public policy, the best sense of how politicians should comport themselves, the best ideas, the best staff. He has defined the modern Senate. Speaker Gib Lewis, in his second session—five fewer than Hobby—showed some surprising signs of moving in the same direction. He too is molding his members into the kind of legislators he wants them to be:

Tags: POLITICS

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