Austin is known, somewhat ostentatiously, as the Live Music Capital of the World, but as any longtime resident knows, the best show in town is not a musical performance at all. In fact, it is mostly tuneless, it has little in the way of rhythm, and no one has ever tried to dance to it (except, perhaps, for the occasional lobbyist). I am speaking, of course, about the pageant that descends on the state capital every odd-numbered year, when the 181 members of the Texas state legislature arrive. The session kicks off in early January, but March is the month when it really begins, after the filing deadline for bills has passed, the floor debate starts, and the spectacle of jockeying, grandstanding, obstructing, horse-trading, and speechifying known as American democracy picks up speed. The tempo increases rapidly until we reach Peak Lege, sometime around April 1, when the appropriations bill reaches the floor and both the knives and the roses come out. From then until the final gavel, the show levels off into a pattern of late nights, bleary eyes, and, hopefully, at least a few displays of leadership.
The Legislature is a great show, but it is better compared with a stage play than a concert. Taken as a whole (which is to say, not just the action on the floor but the hearings and meetings, the conversations in the hall, the lunches and press conferences, the tweets and texts, the gossip over drinks at a downtown bar, the whole extensive display of power), it is as fine a form of theater as you are likely to see this side of Broadway. It certainly has as good a cast as most productions, a diverse crew of heroes, villains, wonks, zealots, and statesmen, each one representing the particular quirks and regional characteristics of his or her corner of the state. And its dramas, though they may at times appear dull and procedural, can be as full of intrigue as Shakespeare’s.
Good theater requires a good critic, an intelligent observer to evaluate the staging and direction, to compare this year’s troupe to last’s, to point out when the monologues ring hollow and applaud when they strike the highest note. For four decades, we have taken our seat in the front row for this purpose. This session is a little different. We’ve dispatched an unprecedented number of journalists to the Capitol for the Eighty-third Legislature: not only Paul Burka, the dean of the Capitol press corps, who’s been covering the state house since 1974, but also senior executive editor Brian D. Sweany, a fourteen-year veteran of texas monthly; senior editor Erica Grieder, previously the Southwest correspondent for the Economist; and associate editor Sonia Smith, who once spent a session covering another compelling state legislature: Louisiana’s. This is as smart a team as we’ve ever had beneath the pink dome. They’ll be reporting for our Best and Worst Legislators story, as well as writing for our new website. You can also follow them on Twitter and subscribe to a newsletter of their tips and insights. What you’ll find in their work is what you’d find in the work of any good theater critic: an open mind, a point of view, deep knowledge, impeccable taste, and a keen eye. Now let’s watch the show . . .