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

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