When he ran for speaker, Brian McCall said that he wanted to give the House back to the members. He didn’t win the race; in fact, he didn’t even make the race, dropping out in favor of Jim Pitts. But it is clear now that he achieved his objective by falling on the grenade: The House belongs to the members again.
What I have always loved about the House is that–except in 2003 and 2005–it has been a body in which you could do what you’re big enough to do. It was a place where a member could use his wits and seize the moment and move mountains–or fall off them. About the only time this happened in the first two sessions of the Craddick speakership occurred in 2005. when Charlie Geren destroyed Kent Grusendorf and the vouchers bill with his amendment to put the pilot program in the districts of Grusendorf and the other leading vouchers advocate, Linda Harper Brown, two of the House’s most disliked members. Now it seems to happen every day. No one is immune, not the chair of Appropriations, not the chair of Calendars. DEE-mocracy is on the rampage, in all its unshackled power.
Did anybody pay attention to Local & Consent yesterday? It started out calmly enough, but then Fred Brown tried to pass a bill allowing the A&M Board of Regents to transfer three acres of land on the main campus to the Former Students Association. Brown ended his brief presentation with “Gig ’em,” which turned out to be the epitaph for his bill. Martinez Fischer objected to the bill and stated his intention to speak for ten minutes, which, under the House rules, meant that the bill must be removed from the calendar. A couple of other bills were knocked down as well, although Dunnam removed his objection to a Bohac bill, which then was allowed to pass. Ds were angry that of the 74 bills on the calendar, 62 were authored by Republicans or Craddick Ds.
Charlie Howard, the chair of Local and Consent, was not present to offer a defense for what the Ds regarded as malapportionment. But he’ll get the message soon enough that if the imbalance is not rectified, future local calendars are in jeopardy–especially the bills of Republican members of Local and Consent, like Fred Brown and Bohac.
The struggle for independence of the members had three major battles. The first was the speaker’s race. Craddick’s won, but his approach to running the House–along partisan lines, with power centralized in himself, imposing his will on every issue–could not be sustained without incurring the risk of losing the next speaker’s race. His margin of victory was too narrow; his speakership was in the hands of his marginal supporters, the gripers and the apostate Democrats. The second battle was the Sid Miller bill to protect historical monuments and plaques from removal or alteration. Democrats immediately perceived the bill as an attempt to protect Confederate statues. The bill created a furor on the floor, with Marc Veasey and Senfronia Thompson pounding away at Miller with amendments and intimations of racism. Republicans had to cast excruciating votes. It was two hours before David Swinford went to the front microphone and managed to restore calm. Miller had to pull the bill down. The result of this battle was that members realized they needed to talk to each other, across party lines, to keep civility and order. The third battle was the Noriega amendment to the appropriations bill for an across-the-board teacher pay raise, instead of merit pay. Craddick’s lieutenants fanned out across the floor to reverse the vote, but the members wouldn’t go along. He was doing what he had said he would not do: trying to get them to vote against their districts. That was the moment of rebellion. The horses were out of the barn.
What does all this mean for Craddick? It could mean that he will face another speaker’s race. There is lots of talk about members refusing to sign pledge cards. If I have learned nothing else from watching the Legislature for forty years (and especially this year, in both houses), I know that talk about challenging the leadership is ever abundant and action is rare. What is clear at this moment is that Craddick has shown that he is not a one-trick pony. He has adjusted to the members’ desire for independence. He leads with a light hand, getting the votes on issues like opposing Democratic motions to instruct the conference committee. The next, and possibly last, big vote will be adopting the conference committee report on the budget. His hold on the speakership is still tenuous, but it is a lot less tenuous than it might have been, had he continued to try to bend the membership to his will. He has shown himself to be a shrewd and resourceful politician.
His focus now is entirely upon getting reelected as speaker. His supporters get their bills on the calendar, no matter how junky they are. One that amazed me was HB 957, by Rob Orr. It required that 1% of state employees’ pay be deducted and invested in the state’s 401K plan unless an employee took steps to opt out. Orr explained that Americans didn’t save enough money, and he wanted to encourage more savings. Wait a minute? Didn’t George W. Bush advocate social security reform with individual savings accounts, saying, “It’s not the government’s money. It’s your money.” Don’t Republicans make this argument all the time when it comes to taxes? Wouldn’t they have made this argument if a Democrat had sponsored the bill? Shouldn’t the Republican position, the position for individual freedom, be to let employees opt IN instead of OUT? Guess how many Republicans voted against this bill. NONE! Guess what the employer’s (the state’s) match is. Same answer.
I apologize for the digression. There are many worse bills out there than this one. It’s just an example of what is happening: A bill sponsored by a Craddick supporter zips through the process without getting any kind of serious examination, either in committee or in Calendars. Keep ’em happy, that’s the plan. But if that is the worst thing that is happening under a Craddick speakership, we should all be thanking Brian McCall every day.