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The Best and Worst Legislators 2011


The most dramatic moment of the session may have occurred on the night of May 4, when the Senate Republicans rammed the budget past the Democratic minority using an arcane parliamentary maneuver, a move that resulted in the first party-line budget vote the chamber had seen in decades. But the most telling moment may have come the next morning, when Governor Rick Perry made an unannounced visit to the Senate floor to congratulate the Republican members. It could only be described as a victory lap: Perry had kept the pressure on all session long to pass a 2012–2013 budget that didn’t use the Rainy Day Fund, and the Senate had finally caved, even though it meant there could be no bipartisan agreement. When he got to the dais, he put a hand on each of Dewhurst’s shoulders and pulled him close. “Good job last night,” he said in his ear.

This was unequivocally Perry’s session. He always knows what he wants, and this time around what he wanted was a session he could base a presidential campaign on. His ambition hung like a cloud over everything. Fix the underperforming margins tax, which has left a $10 billion hole in the budget in perpetuity? Not this time. Perry doesn’t want to raise taxes. Spend part of the Rainy Day Fund to save schoolteachers’ jobs? Can’t do it—never mind that we are coming out of the worst recession since the thirties or that Perry signed off on draining the fund completely to meet shortfalls in 2003 and 2005. Everywhere you looked, Perry had his thumb on the scale.

In the end, he got almost everything he wanted: a $15 billion budget cut along with plenty of red meat from his “emergency items” list, including voter ID, sonogram, and eminent domain reform. Perry has mastered this game like no governor before him. But then again, nobody has ever had as much practice; this was his sixth session as governor. The cuts he insisted on making in public education, where funding levels will no longer be guaranteed by law, mark a turning point in Texas history—and in Perry’s legacy. Time will tell whether they lead to disaster or not. But one thing is certain: If higher office calls him away and this ends up being the last Perry-dominated legislature ever, nobody is going to forget it.

The big debate about Joe Straus remains the same. Does he want to lead, or is he content merely to preside? For this session at least, the question was moot. No matter what Straus did, the real power in the House was the 101 members of the Republican caucus. They thought alike, voted alike, and disrespected their elders alike. Straus 2.0 was not that different from Straus 1.0, but the Republican caucus was totally different from its 2010 predecessor. Straus was being pushed all session to pass an agenda (Perry’s “emergency” bills) with which he had little sympathy but could not afford to neglect. The question Straus supporters have to ask is whether the Speaker offers them enough cover from conservative attack dogs.

Straus remains hostage to a permanent Speaker’s race, which forces him to play defense much of the time. He has always prided himself on his fairness in his parliamentary rulings, but in the age of the Internet, with thousands watching, he is always under pressure to rule in favor of his party. The Democrats who provided the votes to unseat Tom Craddick and elect Straus as Speaker in 2009 are no longer enamored of him. They learned this year that he cannot be their friend forever, so they have nothing to lose by adopting the role of the permanent opposition. All of this makes Straus’s speakership seem a bit unstable. Of course, that’s the way Europe felt about the Hapsburgs, and they lasted for eight hundred years.

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