State representative Brian Harrison had spent only a day and a half at the Capitol when he experienced his first “betrayal,” as he puts it. It was early January, and the representative from Midlothian, 25 miles south of Dallas, was standing near his desk on the House floor as the chamber discussed rote procedural matters. One of Harrison’s allies, representative Bryan Slaton—who, later in the session, would be ejected from the Legislature after he plied a nineteen-year-old staffer with alcohol and had sex with her—had enlivened the usually dreary discussion, proposing two amendments to end what Harrison called the “insane practice” of granting some committee chairmanships to Democrats. 

Harrison watched as, without much debate, both measures were shot down through points of order, or POOs—the unfortunate nickname for challenges to kill amendments or bills on procedural grounds. House Speaker Dade Phelan ruled in favor of the POOs, declaring that the proposed amendments would’ve violated House norms. Indeed, ever since Republicans took control of the Texas House in 2003, members of the opposition party have been given some committee chairmanships—just as Republicans were in the days when Democrats controlled the body. (Even across the Capitol, in the more right-wing Senate, Democrats have long chaired some committees.) But Harrison, a newcomer, who perhaps lacked a sense of the Legislature’s history, was incensed. In a recent phone interview, he said Phelan runs the House with “pro-Democrat Republicans and the Democratic caucus.” 

Now, fifteen months later, Phelan’s political career is in jeopardy: he’s facing a runoff election next month against oil-and-gas consultant David Covey, who outpolled him in the three-candidate primary race on March 5. Harrison thinks the time is ripe to renew efforts to change how the House is run. Earlier this month, he and an alliance of past, present, and prospective lawmakers and party activists drafted a so-called Contract With Texas, harking back to New Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America. The pledge calls for twelve procedural reforms in the House, including banning Democrats from chairing committees and changing the rules for how Speakers are selected. As of press time, the contract had attracted 25 signatories: five incumbents, eight other GOP nominees likely to win in the November general election, and twelve Republicans, including Covey, in competitive runoffs that will take place next month. At least eight of the nonincumbent signees have received campaign donations from Midland oilman Tim Dunn, a right-wing Christian nationalist, or groups allied with him this year. 

Though the contract would effectively cut the sixty-some elected Democrats in the chamber out of the legislative process altogether, Harrison claims that weakening the power of the Speaker will benefit all lawmakers regardless of party. He said he still believes in bipartisanship—pointing to a bill on civil-asset forfeiture he coauthored with “well-known liberal Democrat” Senfronia Thompson of Houston last year—and suggested that the only requirement for cross-party comity is that Democrats concur with his views. “All Texans deserve and are entitled to representation, including Democrats,” he told me. “In fact, I welcome bipartisanship where there are areas of agreement.”

The Texas House has established itself in recent sessions as one of the furthest-right legislative bodies in the nation. But Phelan’s brand of conservatism hasn’t insulated him from charges of betrayal from the far right, or from schoolyard petulance by the hands of Harrison and his allies. Phelan gave Democrats, who comprise 43 percent of the body, chairmanships of just 8 of the 34 standing committees in 2023, or 24 percent, down from 13 chairs in 2021. All the while, he’s passed dozens of Texas GOP priorities that aren’t popular with majorities in the state, and in some cases might be unconstitutional, but that appeal to the 3 percent of Texans who decide Republican primary elections. His chamber approved a de facto ban on abortion, with its creation of a civil bounty-hunting enforcement mechanism; the unlicensed carrying of handguns; a bill authorizing the Legislature to preempt laws passed by elected officials in Democratic cities; and an immigration law that empowers police officers to arrest those they suspect of crossing the border illegally. 

The demands of the contract signees worry several longtime Republican lawmakers. “They know that we can clear the table on conservative policy, so they’re having to go to procedure to find reasons to be upset,” said one Republican committee chair, who requested anonymity, fearing he’d be targeted by the right wing. 

Some of the other goals of the signees include:  

Only soliciting “support for Speakership from Republican members.” In the Texas House, the Speaker is elected by all members and needs majority support—76 votes—to win. That dynamic, in a chamber where the parties are relatively closely balanced, encourages candidates for the position to seek support from members of both parties. But even if the proposed rule had been in effect in 2021 or 2023, Phelan would still have been the Speaker. In 2021, the body voted for the Beaumont representative by a margin of 143–2, with 4 members not casting ballots. (Slaton and fellow Republican Jeff Cason, of Bedford, voted in opposition.) Last year Republicans held a closed-door caucus ballot before the vote of the full chamber, and Phelan won 80–6, according to the chairman I spoke with. Phelan later won approval from the 150-member body 145–3 over representative Tony Tinderholt, a right-winger from Arlington who now has signed the Contract With Texas. 

Limiting “the Speaker to two terms to reduce their power over individual members.” The support for limiting how many sessions a Speaker can serve would mark a fairly radical departure, as many Speakers have served for a decade. Critics say it would also weaken the House relative to the Senate, whose elected leader, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, is not term-limited. The Republican committee chairman with whom I spoke expressed concern that moves like this would give more power to wealthy far-right power brokers such as Dunn, who supports Patrick. “This is a terrible, terrible idea,” the chairman said. 

Decentralizing “power by prohibiting the distribution of political funds from the Speaker.” Ahead of the March primary, Phelan spent at least $2.8 million defending a dozen House incumbents, many of whom had voted for the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton and had targets on their backs from the Dunn-financed wing of the party. The Speaker’s spending was surpassed by that of other statewide leaders and his far-right detractors. Governor Greg Abbott spent nearly $4 million on ads for his favored Republicans in House races. Dunn and his allies spent more than $3 million this year boosting 28 Texas House candidates. Their efforts helped eleven GOP candidates win their primaries outright; eight others supported by Dunn and his political machine head to runoffs in May. When asked why the Speaker should not be able to spend while various billionaires do, Harrison said the comparison was “apples to oranges.” He said Phelan only doles out cash “to his favorite members,” but he did not explain how that’s different from what Dunn does.

Ensuring “all GOP legislative priorities receive a floor vote before any Democrat bills.” The Texas House regularly convenes for only 140 days every two years, and the body often runs out of time to discuss key bills. If such a proposed measure were adopted, many commonsense pieces of legislation might never see the floor, including, for example, a 2023 priority bill of Phelan’s, authored by Democratic state representative Donna Howard, of Austin, that exempted baby wipes and tampons from state sales tax and passed the chamber by a vote of 129–14. Democrats I spoke with said Harrison’s measure would irreparably damage relations in the House. “I’ve seen Republicans who sign this say that there’s still ways for Republicans and Democrats to work together, but part of that collegiality and bipartisanship is built on the idea that the minority party can chair committees and carry big pieces of legislation,” one Democratic member told me. “If you take that away, I’m not sure how collegial the House will be.” 

The contract has so far not attained anything close to majority support in the Republican caucus—particularly as only two signees are locks to be elected, having cleared primaries and facing no Democratic or third-party opponents in November. (Though many are headed to general elections that they’re likely to win.) The Republican chairman told me he’s certain that the contract’s supporters won’t have a large enough caucus to change the rules next session, but that just stirring a fight over the contract might benefit them politically. “I think they want to lose so they can march, fund-raise, and have something going into another primary cycle to make money off of,” he said. 

Indeed, the contract’s demands have become a wedge issue in the GOP runoffs. Seven of the eight signees heading to the May runoffs are running against candidates who have not endorsed the contract, and many accuse their challengers of being Republicans in name only. In the eighth race, Ben Bius, a businessman who is endorsed by Patrick and Paxton, faces Trey Wharton, a businessman and former school board trustee, for a House seat representing their hometown of Huntsville in a district outside College Station. Bius demurred on whether his opponent—who is backed by Abbott—lacked the sort of conservative bona fides Bius believes he possesses, but he said that the contract is an “excellent way to start the conversation about House rules.”

Bius told me he hopes the contract will ensure that the next Speaker can’t, like Phelan and Speakers before him, “build an empire.” As for the prospect that the Contract With Texas could make the House less effective at passing commonsense legislation, Bius seemed to harbor no concerns.