In January 2003 I wrote a column about the death of George Christian (“ By George”), the former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, who was the gentle godfather and wise man of Texas politics. His career, I said then, “seemed to symbolize the changes that are taking place at the Capitol”—in particular, the evolution of Texas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state, in which the incoming House of Representatives would have a GOP majority for the first time since Reconstruction. Christian had hoped to live to see what would happen in the new era as a party that had been out of power for eons assumed full control of the machinery of government. As he had put it to me in an interview, “Watching the Republicans, now that they have their teeth on the tire, is going to be fun. I’ve got to … see if the tire rolls over them.”
Here we are, six years later, and the tire is rolling. Christian’s concern boiled down to a single question: Can the Republicans govern? The GOP era has not been without its achievements, but the list is short, the circumstances of the moment are dire, and the will to attack the state’s problems has been less than robust. Its distinguishing feature has been the tendency to put politics ahead of policy, starting with the Tom DeLay-inspired mid-census redistricting of 2003 and continuing through the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment to voter ID. Even before lawmakers recited their oaths this year, Senate Republicans schemed to change the rules so that they could prevent the Democrats from blocking the voter ID bill. The elevation of this entirely symbolic and ultrapolitical issue blew up the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship and set a precedent for allowing the majority to run roughshod over the minority in future years.
Electoral politics always lurk in the dark recesses of the legislative process, but seldom have they been as pervasive as they are this session. The looming showdown between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican primary and David Dewhurst’s yearning to succeed Hutchison in the Senate have produced a cornucopia of issues and events designed to pander to the Republican base: voter ID, of course, and also “choose life” license plates; a giant pro-life rally on the Capitol grounds attended by Perry; a bill to allow guns on college campuses; and the last-minute rider, inserted by the Senate’s chief budget writer in that body’s version of the appropriations bill, banning the use of state funds for embryonic stem cell research, even as Governor Perry is touting biomedical research. The most glaring example of playing politics with the public welfare was Perry’s opposition to accepting $555 million in federal stimulus funds for unemployment insurance benefits, in keeping with his campaign strategy of positioning himself as the candidate of Texas-style government and Hutchison as the candidate of Washington. While it is true that taking the stimulus funds will require a small increase in the cost of the insurance program, it is also true that employers, who pay the taxes that support the program, would avoid a near-term 20 percent tax increase.
My concern is not with the individual issues but the political traditions of the state. What happened on the voter ID bill, for instance, transcended the issue itself. It signaled Dewhurst’s willingness to put his own political ambitions ahead of maintaining the traditional role of the Senate as a body that operated by consensus. He allowed Republicans to wire around the procedural requirement that a two-thirds majority is necessary before an issue can be debated by the Senate. The need for this super-majority is what elevates the Senate above the House in the legislative process, by forcing senators to negotiate and compromise rather than insist on having their way. The two-thirds rule also enhances the power of the lieutenant governor by allowing him to become the ultimate negotiator. This process has worked for a long time, and although leading Republican senators pay lip service to it, its future is very much in peril.
All this adds up to a dismal session—all politics, no leadership. In my January 2003 column, I tried to imagine what advice Christian might have had for the new GOP-led legislature and leadership and how they could get off to a good start. Here’s how the areas that I addressed six years ago are faring today.
Do what’s best for Texas. As a governing philosophy, it sounds simple enough, but here’s the catch: You have to recognize that the concept of what’s best for Texas, while eternally elusive, is separate and distinct from what might be best for a particular political party or ideology. There is a reason that the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock is still revered around the Capitol. For all his flaws, the way he addressed issues was exactly right. He identified the problems he thought needed to be addressed, and he tried to figure out the best way to solve them. He didn’t ask whether the solution fit some ideological mold. Bullock would never have made Perry’s mistake of rejecting unemployment insurance funds on the ideological grounds that they caused an increase in the cost of government.
Put education first. This has been the Republicans’ greatest failure. To comply with a Texas Supreme Court decision that the state needed to reduce its reliance on property taxes in funding public schools, the Legislature in 2006 slashed school property taxes by a third. This took a recurring $14 billion out of the school finance system. To make up for the lost revenue, lawmakers revised the state business tax. Right idea, wrong numbers; it didn’t balance. The tax cut was too deep, and the business tax and other new revenue sources didn’t produce enough money. Unless the tax cut is reduced or the business tax increased, the imbalance creates a “structural deficit.” It requires state budget writers to use general revenue to make up the difference—about $6 billion in