In January 2003 I wrote a column about the death of George Christian (“By George”), the former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, who was the gentle godfather and wise man of Texas politics. His career, I said then, “seemed to symbolize the changes that are taking place at the Capitol”—in particular, the evolution of Texas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state, in which the incoming House of Representatives would have a GOP majority for the first time since Reconstruction. Christian had hoped to live to see what would happen in the new era as a party that had been out of power for eons assumed full control of the machinery of government. As he had put it to me in an interview, “Watching the Republicans, now that they have their teeth on the tire, is going to be fun. I’ve got to . . . see if the tire rolls over them.”
Here we are, six years later, and the tire is rolling. Christian’s concern boiled down to a single question: Can the Republicans govern? The GOP era has not been without its achievements, but the list is short, the circumstances of the moment are dire, and the will to attack the state’s problems has been less than robust. Its distinguishing feature has been the tendency to put politics ahead of policy, starting with the Tom DeLay-inspired mid-census redistricting of 2003 and continuing through the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment to voter ID. Even before lawmakers recited their oaths this year, Senate Republicans schemed to change the rules so that they could prevent the Democrats from blocking the voter ID bill. The elevation of this entirely symbolic and ultrapolitical issue blew up the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship and set a precedent for allowing the majority to run roughshod over the minority in future years.
Electoral politics always lurk in the dark recesses of the legislative process, but seldom have they been as pervasive as they are this session. The looming showdown between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican primary and David Dewhurst’s yearning to succeed Hutchison in the Senate have produced a cornucopia of issues and events designed to pander to the Republican base: voter ID, of course, and also “choose life” license plates; a giant pro-life rally on the Capitol grounds attended by Perry; a bill to allow guns on college campuses; and the last-minute rider, inserted by the Senate’s chief budget writer in that body’s version of the appropriations bill, banning the use of state funds for embryonic stem cell research, even as Governor Perry is touting biomedical research. The most glaring example of playing politics with the public welfare was Perry’s opposition to accepting $555 million in federal stimulus funds for unemployment insurance benefits, in keeping with his campaign strategy of positioning himself as the candidate of Texas-style government and Hutchison as the candidate of Washington. While it is true that taking the stimulus funds will require a small increase in the cost of the insurance program, it is also true that employers, who pay the taxes that support the program, would avoid a near-term 20 percent tax increase.
My concern is not with the individual issues but the political traditions of the state. What happened on the voter ID bill, for instance, transcended the issue itself. It signaled Dewhurst’s willingness to put his own political ambitions ahead of maintaining the traditional role of the Senate as a body that operated by consensus. He allowed Republicans to wire around the procedural requirement that a two-thirds majority is necessary before an issue can be debated by the Senate. The need for this super-majority is what elevates the Senate above the House in the legislative process, by forcing senators to negotiate and compromise rather than insist on having their way. The two-thirds rule also enhances the power of the lieutenant governor by allowing him to become the ultimate negotiator. This process has worked for a long time, and although leading Republican senators pay lip service to it, its future is very much in peril.
All this adds up to a dismal session—all politics, no leadership. In my January 2003 column, I tried to imagine what advice Christian might have had for the new GOP-led legislature and leadership and how they could get off to a good start. Here’s how the areas that I addressed six years ago are faring today.
Do what’s best for Texas. As a governing philosophy, it sounds simple enough, but here’s the catch: You have to recognize that the concept of what’s best for Texas, while eternally elusive, is separate and distinct from what might be best for a particular political party or ideology. There is a reason that the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock is still revered around the Capitol. For all his flaws, the way he addressed issues was exactly right. He identified the problems he thought needed to be addressed, and he tried to figure out the best way to solve them. He didn’t ask whether the solution fit some ideological mold. Bullock would never have made Perry’s mistake of rejecting unemployment insurance funds on the ideological grounds that they caused an increase in the cost of government.
Put education first. This has been the Republicans’ greatest failure. To comply with a Texas Supreme Court decision that the state needed to reduce its reliance on property taxes in funding public schools, the Legislature in 2006 slashed school property taxes by a third. This took a recurring $14 billion out of the school finance system. To make up for the lost revenue, lawmakers revised the state business tax. Right idea, wrong numbers; it didn’t balance. The tax cut was too deep, and the business tax and other new revenue sources didn’t produce enough money. Unless the tax cut is reduced or the business tax increased, the imbalance creates a “structural deficit.” It requires state budget writers to use general revenue to make up the difference—about $6 billion in the current budget cycle but a projected $8.5 billion in the next. There is no discernible political will to address this problem. Indeed, some Republican lawmakers want to tweak the business tax so that it will bring in less revenue, by giving tax breaks to small businesses. The Legislature’s method of funding schools has not provided for inflationary costs such as health insurance, utilities, and fuel, causing some school districts to dip into reserve funds and others to grapple with potential insolvency within the next couple of budget cycles.
Be fiscally responsible. Texas has a pay-as-you-go system of government. It can spend only as much general revenue as the comptroller of public accounts, currently Susan Combs, says is available. One way to get around pay-as-you-go is by raising revenue without resorting to taxes: tolls, college tuition, and bonds. Republicans have been particularly active in the area of issuing bonds. Two years ago, they authorized $3 billion in bonds to cure cancer. This is a noble cause, but bonds are typically used to acquire property or build a sewer system—something that you know you will have when the bonds are paid off. We should all hope that the cancer bonds will produce a cure, but there is no assurance of it.
The other problem with bonds is that they have to be paid off with interest, and the interest payments come from the general revenue fund that is used to pay for schools, prisons, and other ongoing services of state government. When I addressed this issue in 2003, Perry had just released his ambitious plan for the Trans-Texas Corridor. It called for issuing up to $183 billion in bonds over the next fifty years and paying off the interest—roughly one third of $1 trillion—with revenue from tolls and privatization. “Is it a good idea to privatize highways?” I wrote at the time. “What happens if the tolls don’t cover the interest?” In retrospect, if Perry had come out for the financing plan suggested later by the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M—raising the gasoline tax, indexing it to inflation, and issuing bonds based on the tax revenue—Texas could have met its highway needs without tolling. Instead, we have had six years of turmoil over TxDOT and the Trans-Texas Corridor, because Republicans will not raise taxes.
Don’t overreach. Such a hard thing to learn. Republicans had been kept away from the legislative pie for so long that when they finally got to the table, they wanted to swallow it whole. They overreached in tort reform, limiting the damages that could be awarded to victims to a level at which lawyers could not afford to take cases. They overreached in cutting property taxes. They overreached in congressional redistricting by drawing a map that was good for DeLay but not for Texas; it chopped up rural East Texas, divided Laredo (ultimately costing a Republican congressman his seat), and left Abilene without a congressman. All of this created considerable ill will. “The advantage of being the majority party,” I wrote in 2003, “is that you can do just about anything you want to do. The disadvantage is that if you start alienating folks, you may not be the majority party anymore.”
The lesson of George Christian’s apt allusion to the dog that caught the car is that politics isn’t just about winning. It’s also about governing. It’s about leading. It’s about extending your horizons beyond your party’s agenda, because there are always two agendas—a partisan one and a permanent one. The Republicans have neglected the latter for the former. They are in charge, but they are not governing, and they are not leading. Christian isn’t here to speak for himself, but if he were, I think he would be very worried about what the dog does now.