To walk in the House chamber at noon yesterday was to realize that we were witnessing an historic moment–a challenge to a sitting speaker. The “rig count”–the number of TV cameras on tripods situated on the floor–was 21, the highest I have ever seen. Every seat in the gallery was full and the overflow spectators were allowed to stand along the walls. I had never seen that before, either. People were openly using cell phones in the gallery–another first. Most of the phone calls I got were from lobbyists who knew better than to venture into the theatre of war; outside the chamber, the lobby was empty.

I have great respect for Brian McCall and Jim Pitts, who stepped up to challenge Tom Craddick. They are great members who love the institution of the House, and they came very close to succeeding. McCall at one point had the number of pledge cards he needed to unseat Craddick, but he couldn’t hold them. Pitts was close several times to cementing deals that would have brought key Republicans to his camp, even on the morning of the vote, but he couldn’t close the deals. Pitts could never quite cross the threshold of credibility that would have indicated to members that he could win. He didn’t produce names of supporters, and he wanted a secret ballot. Both of these were clear indications, for nominal Craddick supporters who were contemplating switching to Pitts, that the challengers didn’t have the votes. Meanwhile, Craddick was sitting on 84 votes that he had made public. Everyone knew some of them were squishy, but nobody could be sure who they were. What the Pitts camp had to hope for was that some of the squishies would conspire together to switch, but, as the Democrats noted early in the game, the Republicans were afraid to talk to each other, for fear that someone would tattle to Craddick.

The crucial vote was on the Geren amendment to the Hartnett resolution. Hartnett’s proposal was for members to cast individual paper ballots and for the votes to be made public as soon as they were counted. The Geren amendment was to delay the release of the individual ballots until after the winner had made comittee assignments, to remove the threat of retribution. The debate was great political theatre, involving arcane parliamentary arguments about obscure provisions of the Texas Constitution and House rules. The Pitts forces won a crucial ruling from parliamentarian Denise Davis that the Geren amendment did not violate the constitution or the rules, and then it was time to vote. The motion was to table–that is, kill–the Geren amendment. At the instant of the vote, the electronic scoreboard lit up green, for yes. The Craddick forces, never overlooking a trick, were prepared to vote immediately. I think that this influenced some wavering voters. The Pitts voters were a beat slow to their red buttons. The final vote was 80-68, very close to the partisan makeup of the House (81 R, 69 D), but did not divide along party lines; there were crossers on both sides. Once it was established that the paper ballots would be released immediately, Pitts knew he would lose the vote for speaker and withdrew from the race.

During the debate on the Geren amendment, to my total surprise and consternation, Hartnett cited my observation in the blog that his propsal was fair. All of a sudden heads were swiveling around to look at me–I was sitting in the gallery–and I felt like I was having one of those dreams when you’re running down the street naked. But, as they say, I stand by my story. The original proposal, to have a roll call vote in which members voted from their desks, was a clear effort at intimidation, and I thought it might cost Craddick the race. But a process that calls for secret ballots with the individual votes to be announced immediately afterward is fair. The House has used it many times in the past, though not recently. It eliminates the seamier aspects of electronic or roll call voting–“machine malfunctions” that allow members to change their votes to the winning side, and delaying tactics that provide an opportunity for armtwisting and motions to reconsider the vote. The Geren proposal would have changed the nature of the speakership. Part of the inherent power of the office is the speaker’s ability to appoint committee chairs and committee members who are loyal to him. Take away that power and you weaken the office. The office is more important than Tom Craddick. To put it another way, reward and punishment are part of politics–too much a part, in the case of Craddick, but a necessary part nevertheless.

The consequence of not having a secret ballot for speaker is that it makes it almost impossible to defeat a sitting speaker. It becomes possible only when the speaker substitutes his will for the will of the House, as Craddick has done, and forces members to vote against the interests of their districts, as Craddick has done, and cares more about his friends outside the Capitol instead of the members inside the Capitol, as Craddick has done, and I could go on and on with why he has been a bad speaker, but the facts speak for themselves: He barely survived this fight, and he has been responsible for the diminution of the Republican majority.

If Tom Craddick wants to demonstrate that he has changed, he should propose two reforms. One is term limits for speakers. Until the late Billy Clayton became speaker in 1975, no speaker had ever served for more than two terms. Since Clayton’s election–32 years–Texas has had only four speakers, including Craddick. Clayton served four terms, Gib Lewis five, and Pete Laney five. Craddick is in his third term, and after this challenge fizzled, I doubt that he will be seriously opposed for a fourth. The longer that speakers serve, the more enemies they accumulate and the more they need to resort to punishment. This cycle is inevitable; Craddick just accelerated it so that it had begun by his second month in the job in 2003. Another issue with long-term speakerships is that younger members have little opportunity for advancement, as committee chairs tend to remain in place for the duration of the speakership. The process needs new blood and new ideas. The second reform is a secret ballot. If McCall and Pitts proved anything, it is that a challenge to a sitting speaker is virtually impossible if the vote is public. Congress doesn’t get much right, but it does choose its leadership by secret ballot. With the threat of retribution removed, you can have an election that is a true reflection of how members really feel about their leaders. With these reforms, Tom Craddick could start giving back to the House from which he has taken so much.