I went to the House yesterday expecting to see a passionate battle over the voter photo ID bill. Instead, it was a day when lassitude ruled the chamber. Oh, the Democrats offered plenty of amendments; they accused the Republicans of imposing a poll tax; they talked about the sanctity of the right to vote, but the energy just wasn’t there. Members were milling about the floor, paying little attention to the debate. The Ds kept the first team on the bench and let the redshirts play. This was nothing like 2005, when the issue caused the House to explode in partisan acrimony.
Some credit goes to, of all people, Betty Brown, who handled the bill better than I thought she could. She accepted some amendments and was polite to the opposition. It’s still an awful bill, and Phil King’s soon-to-follow voter registration bill is much worse, but the outrage wasn’t there. I talked to one of the Democratic troika during the lunch hour, and he was nonchalant about the forthcoming debate. “It will probably pass,” he said of the bill. “The good news is that the session is one day closer to being over.”
I think that the session IS over, at least for the House. There is no will to pass legislation that makes Texas a better place. It’s all about the 2008 elections now. The voter ID bill has morphed in two years from being an unconscionable infringement on the right to vote to being something Rs can point to as preventing illegals from voting. Republicans are going to go home with precious few accomplishments to point to, except paying for the property tax cut that they enacted in the special session.
What accounts for the lackidaisical attitude in the House? The answer is Tom Craddick. Here is the subject for an interesting philosophical debate: Is the House better off when Craddick is running it hands-on, or when he is running it hands-off? We all know what it’s like when he is exercising tight control, but ever since the debate over the appropriations bill, Craddick has been almost indifferent to the proceedings on the floor. “The horses are out of the barn,” is the way a senior Democrat put it to me. Translation: the bit is out of the Republicans’ mouths, except for occasional votes such as the Democrats’ motions to instruct the conference committee. The tipping point of the session occurred on the Noriega amendment to the appropriations bill that replaced merit pay funding with an across the board teacher pay raise. The vote was symbolic; the conference committee will eventually restore merit pay. What mattered is that the leadership team started to work the floor to reconsider the vote and got nowhere. The Democratic victory was allowed to stand, and since then, the will of the House has determined the outcome of floor debate, not the will of the chair.
My sense is that either Craddick has decided that this is his last term as speaker (which some Republicans believe but I do not) or that he is focused entirely on winning reelection as speaker in January 09 (which I do believe), and he has decided that the best way to accomplish this is to loosen up on the bit and let the horses run. Arm-twisting is over, at least for now. His rulings on points of order appear to be even-handed; his involvement in issues is slight. Committees are churning out bills. The calendar is loaded with insignificant and junky bills, most of them authored by his supporters, both Rs and Ds. A number of Republican committee chairs are working closely with Democratic members. Without a Great Satan to hate, the Democrats don’t have fire in their bellies. This period reminds me a lot of the 01 session, when very little happened as the Capitol community marked time until the decisive 2002 elections. Strike 2002 and insert 2008 and that is where we are now. The House seems to sense that change is coming, but whether it is in the speakership, or the majority, or just in the way Craddick operates, no one can be sure. Until it happens, the will of the House to produce major legislation appears to be nonexistent.