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Republicans Are Discussing Making the Texas House More Like Congress

In a closed-doors meeting, the GOP discussed a new process for electing House speaker.

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House Speaker Joe Straus leaves a morning private meeting of the House Republican Caucus in the John H. Reagan building next to the Texas Capitol on August 16, 2017. S
Photograph by Bob Daemmrich

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?

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  • John Bernard Books

    Gub Abbott put the items on the special session so Straus would now be on record opposing them.

    • roadgeek

      Exactly. The special session was an absolute trap for Straus; he had no way to win. No way at all. I respect Straus; he’s a good man with a good heart. I also think he’s honest. But he’s not quite what many Texans want in the way of Speaker of the House. He’s a country-club Republican in a state which has become far more conservative. My own beef with him is that he’s so weak on the illegal alien issue. He’d probably be fine to drink beer with, however.

      • SeeItMyWay

        I predict the noose P & A and the Freedom Caucus is working on tying will end up with their necks in it.

        • John Bernard Books

          I dunno elitists like Straus look down on just about everyone, even those that support them and eventually it catches up with them.

  • WUSRPH

    And the Congress works so well….

  • anonyfool

    If this goes through I predict Texas will repeat the Kansas experiment in state government – it will be glorious. http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/22/358105415/episode-577-sam-brownback-s-kansas-experiment

    • SpiritofPearl

      It is said that one has to hit bottom before reality strikes.

      • anonyfool

        I’m only sorry so many people in urban areas that didn’t vote for these policy makers will suffer.

        • SpiritofPearl

          Let’s not blame the urbanites. There are subversive forces at work here.

  • BCinBCS

    A couple of observations:

    (i) Changing the selection of the House speaker to a caucus vote would result in just what we need…more partisanship. /s/

    (ii) Patrick’s statement about Straus abandoning the Alamo has been brought up twice here on BB. To a Texan, that’s quiet an insult. I wonder, however, if his actions can be described less as those of Moses Rose and more as those of Sam Houston during the Run-away Scrape?

    (iii) It has been noted before but I will emphasize again that many of Dan Partick’s agenda items would be best handled at the local city and county level rather than at the state level.,

    • WUSRPH

      When you believe that your opponents are your “enemy” and that they as morally, physically and spiritual corrupt and that either the laws of history, racial and ethnic superiority and God or all three, are on your side—as Patrick, Stickland and their ilk do, you do not want bi-partisanship. You want absolute control to install YOUR VISION.
      Most state legislators (other than one officially non-partisan) ARE organized along strict party lines….That was not the case in Texas and the rest of the South because for most of our history there was effectively only one party that was “disorganized” along ideological, cultural, urban/rural and geographical lines. The battles between those groups within the party and the legislature could be just as brutal as those between Republicans and Democrats (and maybe even Patrick and Straus) today..
      However, as we have regretfully watched, the GOP gradually grew, mostly because of the votes of people who were new to Texas and came from places where it was almost socially acceptable to be a Republican. They did not understand that the GOP they were joining was far from that from where they came from….In fact, up until the 1960s at the earliest, the NATIVE GOP in Texas was primarily composed of three basic groups: The “Country Club Republicans” who were Republicans for business reasons and to be eligible for appointments should the GOP win the presidency; a gradually dying out and politically isolated group of Blacks for whom the GOP was still “The party of Abraham Lincoln”; and crazy state rightists some of whom were racists with a small sprinkling of classical conservatives (like John Tower) who had left the Democrats because of their dislike of the New Deal. The problem is that the newcomers did not understand that the people they wanted to be associated with were not the Texas GOPers, but the Texas Business Conservative Democrats….so out of habit they started voting for someone with a (R) after his name here in Texas. That helped elect John Tower in 1961 and Bill Clements in 1978. However, Republicans in the Legislature did not become a group that anyone really needed to give much consideration until after the Reagan Landslide of 1980….and did not take over the House and Senate until the mid-to-late 90s in the Senate and 2003 in the House.
      Today we face a peculiar replay of history where the major battles in the Legislature are likely to be between people who are at least officially members of the party but instead of Liberal (but never in terms anyone would recognize as being liberal in New England) and Conservative Democrats it will be between a dying group of Business Conservative Republicans and Radical Extremists who will fight it out in the primaries and then be elected in November by JJ’s mythical “moderate” Republicans and “November Republicans” who vote for anyone with that (R) behind his or her name on the general election ballot.
      P.S. Many of his troops called Sam Houston a coward and threatened to refuse to obey his orders right up till the moment he lined them up to charge across that plain at San Jacinto.

      • SpiritofPearl

        Straus gets great support from many Texans. Clipping his wings will have costs.

        • WUSRPH

          That is what they said we Pete Laney was replaced by Tom Craddick…and it turned out to be partially true as a handful of “Craddick Democrats” (those who voted for Craddick against Laney the Republican) were defeated for re-election…but not Ms. Dukes who sold out her party to keep a seat on House Appropriations……Similarly, a couple of Straus Republicans have been targeted and defeated, at lest partially because the voted FOR Straus…..I don’t think any of those who have opposed him have lost, although they did make two or more runs at Stickland. Being on the “wrong side” in a Speaker’s race in the GOP apparently matters only if you were not on the radicals side and, not the other way around.. I expect we will see a several more GOP House members targeted in the March primary for being for Straus and/of for voting for his position on issues in the two sessions. I also fear that at least two or thee of them will be defeated. How they fare will tell us a lot about just how realistic or fanciful JJ’s revival of moderate Republicanism will be in Texas.

          • SpiritofPearl

            How do you define “modern Republicanism in Texas”?

            Ms. Dukes is appalling.

          • WUSRPH

            I think I said “moderate Republican”, not “modern”….Actually, I don’t think you can combine the words “Texas Republican” with “modern”…They just don’t fit…..

  • John Bernard Books

    You can fool some of the people all the time….
    “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.”…LBJ

    “Morales says that the 61-year-old lieutenant governor leaped from his chair and slapped him across the face. “You little Mexican piece of shyt!” Bullock shouted, as an aide restrained him. ” Bob Bullock

    “The appearance of the law must be upheld – especially when it’s being broken.”
    Boss Tweed

    Democrats are losing power and you must do as you are told or there will be consequences.

  • roadgeek

    “,,,why did he bother putting those items on the special session call?…”
    Because next election, and nothing else. The commercials write themselves. Brilliant strategy.

  • José

    I rather doubt that most Texans would agree that the state legislature needs to be more partisan and less representative.

  • Louann Platter

    Libertarians are killing the Republican party with their fake utopian dreams, funded by self-serving billionaires. See: https://www.texasobserver.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-freest-little-city-in-texas/ On a smaller scale, there was a city near Dallas who was lured into some of these extreme tax rollbacks. After service cuts were felt, voters kicked the Libertarians to the curb. Libertarians want to control it all without the annoying process of elections and legislative battles. They don’t want liberty, they want control (tyranny).

  • WUSRPH

    Another Texas voting restriction law went down today. This one tried to limit who could be an interpreter. They barred a man from interpreting for his mother because he lived in the next county.. Texas, of course, has a long habit both under the old Conservative Democrats in the past and the GOP today of trying to keep “those people” from voting. Probably half the voting and redistricting law cases before the SCOTUS in the 20th Century came out of Texas. Everything from letting soldiers vote here…(We denied them that right…We were afraid the “Blue bellies” might take over again) through annual voter registration and one-man-one-vote were originally Texas cases. Maybe we should put up a statute to honor the proud denier of the right to vote.

  • WUSRPH

    Did I see you say that you were being BLOCKED by Sen. Burton and others? OMG, what must it feel like to be treated like the TROLL? On the other hand, you are wasting your time trying to discuss things with them anyway.. They are beyond hope….spend your time talking to those who are still reachable.

  • Kozmo

    The usual Republican answer when they can’t get their way — change the rules!

    • Donald Baker

      Sort of how Hillary got the democrat nomination

  • Kozmo

    Patrick is such a buffoon. I bet he knows next to nothing about the actual battle of the Alamo except what he’s seen in a John Wayne movie. More grandstanding from the chief minister of propaganda.

  • Jackel

    If there is a change needed, it needs to be the gov & the lt. gov.

  • WUSRPH

    I suppose you saw where Lt. Gov. (how it hurts to use that title with his name) Patrick is calling on every GOP Primary voter to make every GOP candidate for the House answer the question of whether he will vote for Joe Straus to be re-elected as Speaker in 2019 and to use their answer in deciding how to vote. Patrick, of course, wants the answer to be NO.. I expect that he probably will also back efforts to get the GOP precinct conventions and the State GOP Convention to (a) condemn Straus and (b) change the method of electing a speaker…

    It really seems to be shaping up to probably the worst, nastiest and bloodiest GOP Primary in history…..My parents though the battle in 1952 between the traditional GOP members, like themselves, who were supporting
    Sen. Bob Taft, known as “Mr. Republican”, against the “cross-over Democrats” led by Bill Hobby’s mother, Oveta Culp Hobby, who were pushing Gen. Eisenhower, was a nasty fight, but that was an afternoon English tea party compared to what this is likely to be. (I got in a little trouble at home when I, still not 9, told them that I was for Ike and that he was going to win which, of course, as history tells us, as Hobby, et al crushed the forces of Mr. Republican at the State GOP Convention and were seated at the National GOP Convention as a Eisenhower delegation.)

    There have also been a few battles royal among Texas Democrats—including in 1952 when the “Shivercrats” led by then Texas Gov. Alan Shivers voted to support Ike over the regular Democratic nominee, Gov. Adlia Stevenson, because, or so they claimed, Stevenson would not pledge to help overturn the court rulings, etc. that blocked Texas from taking control (and oil revenues) from the so-called “Tidelands” off the Gulf Coast. A major feature of that fight was the decision by the Hobby-forces, etc. to respond in kind by having the Texas GOP place THE DEMOCRATIC statewide candidates on the November ballot agricultural candidate, agreed to the
    deal. Check the election records as you will see how, for example, Shivers, the Democrat, soundly defeated Shivers, the Republican, for governor that November.) (Such cross-filing was later made illegal.)

    There were also some blood spread on the floor of several other Democratic conventions—and walkouts by the alleged Liberals—as civil rights and desegregation became hot issues in the 60s.

    But all of those, while hotly debated, are probably going to look like minor squabbles if Abbott/Patrick/Empower Texas/Tea Party, etc. really try to politically assassinate Straus. That, of course, assumes that the semi-mythical “moderate Republicans” we keep being told and “coming back” and enough of the ” November Republicans” who vote only in November think that defending Straus is important enough for them to waste their precious time by voting in the primary and attending the GOP conventions…I, unfortunately, do not expect that to happen.

    Of course, I hope that Straus may still be able to pull off being elected to another (his sixth term) as speaker of the House as enough House members may still be loyal enough to vote for him…But, if all of this happens, it is going to make future relations between Patrick-Abbott-Straus and the Texas House and Senate very, very interesting.

  • WUSRPH

    I also suppose you saw where Tom Craddick has jumped on the “let the caucus pick the speaker” bandwagon….He probably really regrets that they cannot make the policy retroactive….That way he might still be speaker….assuming his heavy handedness and use of his power to stick it to anyone who did not toe his personal party line had not convinced more Republican house members to oust him, as happened in 2008.

    You remember Craddick don’t you? The speaker who declared that the only people who could speak in the Texas House were people he choose to recognize and only at the time he chose…..A real supporter of openness and protecting the members (SIC)….or about the total opposite of Straus… Oh, what good old days those were.

    • WUSRPH

      P.S. To be totally fair and open, I must admit (both because it is the right thing to do and because I am on the record that way) that when Craddick made his “Only I decide” ruling I said that I thought he was technically correct as that is what a the strict reading of the rules suggested. (In fact, that is the way I had described one of the speaker’s powers in my (in) famous legislative training manual some years before.

      What some saw as my “defense” of Craddick resulted in a fairly lengthy exchange with some other old Capitol hands about it….all of us agreeing that, no matter what the rules said, we could not remember a speaker who had done what Craddick did. I also described it as a damn stupid thing to do both for the good of the body and for public relations. I did not, however, “prognosticate” that it would bring Craddick down, as it certainly helped do…