Capitol Affair

The 2011 legislative session barely resembled the first one I ever covered, in 1975, when Billy Clayton was Speaker and rural Democrats ruled. How did we get from there to here? In four simple steps. 

The late, not-so-great Eighty-second Legislature that expired on May 30 will go down in Texas history as one of the most consequential lawmaking bodies ever to convene in this state. It is useful to remember, however, that consequences can cut two ways—for better or for worse. The main achievement of the Eighty-second Legislature is that it completely changed the political culture of the state. Last November’s elections were the nail in the coffin of the Democratic party, rendering it ineffective for years to come. This situation has been building since 1994, the last year in which a Democrat was competitive in a race for statewide office, and it has profound implications, which did not become apparent until Speaker Joe Straus gaveled in the Eighty-second Legislature: namely, that the bipartisan political culture that had existed since the rise of the Republican party in the seventies has now been supplanted by an intensely partisan environment. This session, the majority party in the House voted as a bloc time after time after time; in the Senate, long-standing traditions of bipartisanship—
foremost among them the so-called two-thirds rule that invested power in the minority party—were swept aside.

The lesson of the Eighty-second Legislature is that political culture matters. It always has. The style and feel of the Capitol are what guide the members, keep them honest, and even determine the substance of their laws. When we published our inaugural Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators story, in 1973, the Legislature was overwhelmingly white, male, rural, and Democratic. The typical legislator was a good ol’ boy, as exemplified by Speakers such as Billy Clayton and Gib Lewis. The culture of these legislators dominated the Capitol for decades, and there is a temptation to view it with nostalgia. It is often said that rural lawmakers make the best politicians, because in small towns they encounter all kinds of people. They certainly made the best copy. It was a feat just to get Pete Laney, Lewis’s successor, to give a straight answer. Ask him about the prospects for a school finance bill, and he might reply, as he once did to me, “Cloudy. Looks like rain.”

The Capitol today would be almost unrecognizable to the legislators of Clayton and Lewis’s day. In some ways it is almost unrecognizable to me. I worked in the Senate before I began writing about the Legislature for TEXAS MONTHLY, in 1975, and I have covered every session since. Some of the changes during that time are obvious—the shift from a Democrat-controlled body to a Republican-controlled one, and the emergence of a more diverse group of lawmakers, for instance. But as I look back at the past twenty sessions, it is the shift in the culture of the Capitol that seems the most significant to me. Many factors have contributed to this transformation, but four stand out as the keys to understanding the difference between TEXAS MONTHLY’s first Legislature, the Sixty-third, and the Eighty-second.

Suburbanization. One of the basic rules of politics is that demographic change produces political change. In Texas the most profound example of this has not been the increase in the Latino population, because Latinos don’t yet vote in sufficient numbers to influence statewide elections. Rather, the demographic change that has reshaped Texas politics has been the explosive growth of the suburbs. Their rise broke the social compact, the central tenet of which is the familiar Democratic mantra “We’re all in this together.” To this, the typical suburbanite responds, “Like hell we are.” People move to suburbia to escape the social ills of the city. I can recall a conversation I had in 1987 with Mike Toomey, who was then a rising star in the House. “My constituents [in the Houston suburbs] don’t want anything from government,” he told me. “Their schools are new. Their roads are new. All they want from government is not to raise their taxes.” If the culture of the Capitol in 1973 could be said to derive from the rural roots of many of the members, the culture of today’s Legislature owes much to the self-contained nature of suburbia.

The Capitol expansion. Architecture may seem like a trivial thing to credit with effecting political change. It is not. In 1993 a major renovation of the Capitol, begun in the aftermath of the near-calamitous fire of 1983, was completed. The underground extension was added, and as a result, the members’ office space increased dramatically. Prior to the fire, all the members’ offices had been squeezed into the main building. Behind the massive doors leading into the space provided for offices were cheap paneled walls and makeshift corridors. The quarters, particularly for House members, were incredibly cramped. The packing of a group of legislators into a small area forced members to get to know their neighbors and colleagues and provided an opportunity for camaraderie to flourish; in turn, the camaraderie enabled members to frequently transcend partisan boundaries.

But there was something else too. Anyone walking into these warrens of temporary offices would have gotten the impression that whoever was occupying them must not be very important. And that is how the average member perceived him- or herself in those days. After the renovation, House members had spacious offices. Their new digs, and the inevitable growth of staffs, caused their self-perceptions to become, shall we say, somewhat inflated. Architecture changed politics. The Legislature started to resemble Congress, a place where members know only their small corner of the political universe and talk to their staffs instead of to colleagues.

The power of the governor. Government textbooks and the Texas Constitution say that ours is a weak-governor state. A strict constructionist would insist that the governor’s power is largely limited to making appointments to state boards and commissions and to vetoing bills. In practice, the political power of the governor has expanded dramatically over the past four decades. Governor Perry has upended the political culture by establishing what amounts to a cabinet form of government. His long governorship has enabled

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