Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick have been quick to blame House Speaker Joe Straus for the failure of key items on their special session agenda: transgender bathroom restrictions, caps on state and local spending, and property tax limits on cities and counties. “Elections matter,” Abbott told a Houston radio station, seeming to hint at the “Oust Straus” movement brewing amongst social conservatives.
But conversations far more fundamental than the future of the House speaker were happening on Wednesday. In a closed-door session in the John H. Reagan State Office Building, the House Republican Caucus began discussing whether the House should continue as a tacitly bipartisan legislative body or divide along party lines, much like the current U.S. Congress.
Straus stood quietly through the meeting, according to participants, as caucus members discussed whether they want to demand party discipline when the House speaker is chosen at the start of the 2019 legislative session. Caucus members gave Straus a standing ovation for his service at the end of the meeting, which—depending on who ask—was either a show of support for another term of office or the equivalent of a gold watch for retirement. Straus left the meeting in a hurry, squeezing onto an elevator. “We had a very good conversation. I enjoyed it. I think all of us did. Very constructive, very positive, very unifying in a lot of ways,” Straus said just before the doors closed.
The morning meeting was prompted by a letter from members of the Freedom Caucus of Texas to Republican representatives. “A Republican Speaker of the House should first win the confidence of a majority of his or her fellow Republicans,” the letter read. “To do so, Republicans should determine their candidate for Speaker in a called meeting of the House Republican Caucus before the 86th Legislature convenes in 2019.” The letter noted that such a process for electing the speaker is called for in the Republican Party of Texas platform.
A division of the aisles would make it easier to push through partisan agenda items such as the bathroom bill, a measure that Straus effectively blocked by never allowing it to come to the House floor for a vote. But in taking that route, the individual members give up a lot of their personal power and influence to the caucus chair, the majority leader, or their party’s speaker. For the past several decades, Texas speakers of both parties have maintained at least some level of cross-party support in the leadership ranks.
Even after former Speaker Tom Craddick took command of the chamber in 2003 as the first Republican speaker in 130 years, he initially ran the House with a limited bipartisanship. He gave a third of the key leadership positions to Democrats, even though the chamber was split 86-62 in favor of the GOP. When Craddick lost his power, it was because his dictatorial management style had rankled both Republicans and Democrats.
However, it stuck in the craw of many Republicans in 2009 that Straus, a moderate Republican from San Antonio, won the speaker’s chair by assembling a coalition of Democrats and eleven anti-Craddick Republicans. The unanimous vote for Straus that January shows just how much the election of a speaker occurs behind the scenes.
Out of the hands of the state’s voters, a speaker is chosen solely in an election conducted by the House membership and reflects whatever coalition the candidate can build among the elected representatives. If a speaker is chosen in a party caucus, then the post is a reflection of the partisan make-up of the House and whichever party holds the majority. As recently as 2009, the Republicans held a majority by a mere two votes. The current partisan make-up, though, is 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats.
Nothing in the state constitution or the current House rules allows for the election of a speaker by a caucus. And without a rules change, nothing would bind a legislator to follow a caucus choice when actually voting for a speaker candidate on the House floor.
Operating with a coalition of Democrats and business-oriented Republicans, Straus often has left social conservative Republicans out of his leadership ranks and blocked their legislation. That prompted a minor GOP revolt in 2011 to attempt a Republican caucus election of the speaker. But even in a closed-door meeting at the time, two-thirds of the Republican legislators preferred the re-election of Straus.
And that may explain why the caucus on Wednesday delayed any decision on the process until a September retreat at Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop. Whatever the ultimate decision, the tea party conservatives of the Freedom Caucus are driving the discussion. “From the Freedom Caucus perspective, we were very encouraged by the meeting today,” said Caucus Chairman Matt Schaefer of Tyler. “It was healthy. It was positive. There definitely was an action point that the conversation is going to continue.” Schaefer emphasized that the meeting was about a future process, but not about Straus specifically.
Inescapably, though, it is about the current speaker. As the special session came to a rapid conclusion on Tuesday night, Patrick likened Straus to someone who would have abandoned the Alamo during the Texas Revolution rather than staying to defend it.
Abbott, in a series of talk radio interviews on Wednesday morning, was a little more generous, though he noted that Straus made certain that nine of his agenda items were not voted on by the full House. “I’m disappointed that all twenty items did not receive the up or down vote that I wanted,” Abbott said on KTRH, but noted that Straus never misled him. “He was not tricky. He was open and overt that he would not let it on the House floor.”
Abbott left open the possibility of some future special session on his agenda, but he said at present it would be a waste of time and money. The House and Senate are heavily divided on some of his basic issues, such as restraining property taxes raised by cities and counties.
Of note, Abbott emphasized Straus’s honesty in telling him that transgender bathroom legislation, spending caps, and automatic tax rollback elections for local governments would never get a vote in the House in the special session. You sort of have to wonder, if Abbott received such advanced notice, why did he bother putting those items on the special session call?