The Ten Best and The Ten Worst Legislators

GLORY BEE! The world at last has gotten a glimpse of the Texas Legislature as we have come to know and love it. Thanks to the Killer Bees, the twelve senators who eluded a statewide search for four days after walking out in opposition to an early presidential primary, everybody now knows what we’ve been saying all along: nobody, but nobody, plays hardball quite as hard as our Legislature, nor has so much fun in the process. Imagine, if you can, a dozen gray-flanneled New England congressmen dodging the FBI, or a band of California legislators going underground in Chinatown … impossible.

But the flight of the Bees may have been a last hurrah for the old days and the old ways. The Texas Legislature, in its 132 nd year, is going through a belated change of life. The good-old-boy approach to politics isn’t enough anymore; today’s Texas legislator is more at home with semicolons than six-packs. Consider the issues that tested the 66 th Legislature: tax relief, new interest ceilings, penalties for usury, manufacturers’ liability for defective products, the dilemma of how to finance and controlled college construction, wage levels for constructing public projects, weakening the consumer protection law, revising workman’s compensation, plus Sunset, the Legislature’s first real attempt to get a handle on the bureaucracy, plus the presidential primary, plus some perennials (school finance, appropriations, property tax administration) and some leftovers (revisions of strip-mining, clean air, and consumer credit laws).

As if that weren’t enough, the Legislature had to deal with the state’s first Republican governor in a century. Bill Clements asked for initiative and referendum, a ban on state income taxes, wiretapping authority for police, and some other goodies; about all he got was increased budgeting authority. Still, as Texas’ best practitioner of political theatrics since John Connally, Clements managed to come out looking good despite getting virtually nothing he wanted, as opposed to his predecessor, Dolph Briscoe, who usually got everything he wanted and looked terrible.

With all this to think about, any legislator who didn’t have a grasp of finance and credit, who didn’t understand the state’s intricate property tax system, who didn’t know the law, was doomed to the sidelines. For some reason, the murkier the waters, the more lawyers seem to be able to see; and with the waters of the session muddied by so many complex issues, lawyers dominated the session. Although the Legislature’s 181-member roster includes only 75 attorneys, our Ten Best list includes 8. Even the other two have attended law school; they are, not coincidentally, the hardest working members of the House and Senate.

Our criteria, as always, transcended any consideration of political philosophy, for both conservatives and liberals use the same standards to judge their colleagues. A good legislator is intelligent, quick to understand, well prepared, open-minded, and independent. He knows the distinction between firmness and fairness and makes good use of both. He is effective because of his colleagues’ respect, not their fear. He thinks about what’s right—and he is smart enough to know he may be wrong. A bad legislator is more difficult to define: indolence, stupidity, and ineffectiveness can be overlooked if a legislator has enough sense to stay indoors during emergencies. It’s the driver who’s so oblivious that he blocks the road who frequently ends up on the Ten Worst list along with, of course, those occasional ogres who take pleasure in running over people.

We did look closely at one nonpartisan issue in making our determinations. This was the first year of the Sunset process, where state agencies must periodically justify their existence. Every agency up for review this year, 26 in all, would cease to exist if the Legislature did not reestablish them. This provided a golden opportunity to make an agency like the State Board of Morticians more responsive to the public and less a creature of the industry it regulates. In contrast to issues like higher interest rates, where it was debatable where the public interest really lay, Sunset was one of those issues with the public interest on one side and taking care of your friends on the other—and we judged it accordingly.

The Best and Worst lists represented a consensus of our own observations of floor and committee action combined with interviews of legislators, staff, Capitol press, lobbyists, and state agency birddogs who keep their noses close to the Legislature. Our Best list includes six liberal Democrats, two conservative Democrats, and two Republicans—disproportionately strong showings by liberals and Republicans, but a dismal performance by conservatives. Perhaps the state’s political talent, like its population, is piling up in the cities and their suburbs, but the more likely explanation is that conservative Democrats lost too much talent through retirement last season: they were like a football team whose best players had graduated—still a couple of years away from a good year. Chances for a comeback are good, because most of the freshman talent had a decidedly conservative Democratic tinge. Ed Howard (42, Texarkana) was in a class by himself in the Senate, and Bill Messer (28, Belton) and John Sharp (28, Victoria) were the best newcomers in the House. All are conservative Democrats. Lloyd Criss (38, La Marque) was the top liberal arrival, and Ed Emmett (29, Kingwood) led the Republicans. The Worst list was more balanced: four conservative Democrats, three liberals, three Republicans.

In addition to the Ten Best and Ten Worst, there were some near-misses in both directions. Three House committee chairmen deserve honorable mention: Gib Lewis (42, Fort Worth) ran the best committee in the House (Intergovernmental Affiars) and was effective on the floor—unfortunately, too often on behalf of the beer lobby; Bennie Bock (42, New Braunfels) orchestrated the first override of a gubernatorial veto since 1941 and guided park programs through the Environmental Affairs Committee; and Bob Simpson (35, Amarillo) deviated from tradition by running the Insurance Committee as something other than an arm of the insurance industry. Down in the trenches, two committee workers were exceptional: losing Speaker candidate

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