In 1973, Texas Monthly rolled out its first edition of “THE Best and Worst Texas Legislators,” an annotated list of the Texas lawmakers who had brought the most honor and dishonor upon themselves and upon the legislative body during the just-ended legislative session. The list has appeared in our pages every odd-numbered year since—much to the delight and dismay of its subjects.
As we begin work on this year’s iteration, we want to show our readers what’s on our minds as we deliberate on this list throughout the session. So as the 86th Legislature progresses, we’ll be writing about the highlights and lowlights of the lawmakers as they happen in a new online feature called Best and Worst Legislators in Real Time. You can expect to see updates pretty much anytime a legislator does something worthy of celebration of disapprobation.
As in years past, the final list will be revealed soon after the end of the session ends. Meanwhile, we invite your thoughts on key legislative moments and the people who make them. We may not always agree, but we always invite the insight of the lege and of legislative watchers.
Best Response to a Bad Committee Assignment: Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo
Stodgy though it may seem, there’s real purpose to the longstanding tradition of Senate decorum. The upper chamber of the Texas Legislature has long been viewed as the more deliberative, more democratic body. The senators were the adults under the dome—until, that is, a former talk-radio host from Houston got elected to the chamber in 2007 and quickly rose to power. In his first speech as a Texas senator, Dan Patrick railed against one of the chamber’s most cherished traditions: the two-thirds rule, which required that 21 of the 31 senators to agree to allow a bill to be considered on the floor of the chamber. The rule forced senators to get widespread, often bipartisan support for legislation they were hoping to bring up for debate. Members believed it gave a voice to the minority party and encouraged compromise. But after he became lieutenant governor in 2015, Patrick got rid of the rule and implemented a three-fifths rule, which means that now only nineteen senators—the precise number of Republicans now in the chamber—must agree to allow a bill on the floor for debate.
This session began with another long-standing rule of decorum falling by the wayside: the unspoken rule that senate staff members should never publicly criticize a member of the Texas Senate. It happened when Patrick released committee assignments and appeared to exact political retribution against a Republican colleague who ran afoul of Patrick last session on a couple of key votes, including Patrick’s bathroom bill. Patrick’s target this session was Kel Seliger, a burly former mayor of Amarillo who had been the longtime chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, an assignment other senators said Seliger relished. In legislative parlance, Patrick “busted” Seliger off that committee completely and assigned him to head a newly formed Senate Agricultural Committee. For good measure, Patrick pulled Seliger off the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
“It’s not what I desired,” Seliger told the Texas Tribune’s Emma Platoff after the committee assignments were made public. “There’s a negative reaction in this district, because [the finance committee] is a good position to try and do the things that are important in an area in West Texas that seems to have to fight for everything, from a budgetary point of view.”
That’s when decorum collapsed. “If Senator Seliger believes serving as Chair of the Agriculture Committee—a critical committee for West Texas and all of rural Texas—is beneath him, he should let us know and the lieutenant governor will appoint someone else,” said Sherry Sylvester, a senior level Patrick advisor.
Senate colleagues were stunned. Not just by Seliger’s demotion, but by the fact that an aide to Patrick would speak in such terms of a sitting member of the Senate. Just as stunned, apparently, was Seliger, who went on a Lubbock talk radio show three days later and responded to Sylvester: “I have a recommendation for Miss Sylvester and her lips and my back end.”
The next day, Patrick yanked Seliger’s final chairmanship away, declaring that Seliger’s comments were “lewd.”
While Patrick’s move can be viewed as a raw exercise of power, some observers have pointed out the limits of such power. Patrick has put Seliger in the nothing-left-to-lose category, which gives the man from Amarillo newfound power. Remember that two-thirds rule that Patrick changed to a three-fifths rule? Seliger, now a free agent, represents the nineteenth vote that Patrick needs on bills that may fall along party lines. How Seliger chooses to exercise his vote could come back to haunt Patrick later this session.