Texas Speaker’s power increases with longevity
Over the past half century, the power of the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives has grown considerably. Before that, the speaker would serve a two-year term, or maybe two, and then go back to the floor the next session while someone else took the gavel.
The more powerful House speaker probably began during the four years Democrat Ben Barnes held the job (1965-69). Barnes became speaker at age 26, with help from his mentor, then-Gov. John B. Connally. Barnes, like Connally, wanted action. A recent UT Press book, “The House Will Come to Order,” says Barnes wanted the House and speaker to match the power of the Senate and its presiding officer, the lieutenant governor.
“We are not going to come down this trail but one time,” Barnes told his troops. “Let’s get out there. Let’s not just sit over here and react. Let’s go act. The Senate gets all the credit for what good legislation passes. The House has always been kind of been a second place to the governor and the Senate. So let’s change it. Let’s get out there and be proactive. Let’s make some changes.”
Lyndon Johnson of Texas, as U. S. Senate majority leader in the 1950s and as President after 1963, used federal matching funds as bait for states to do things he thought they had neglected in education, health care, environmental policy. So state agencies expanded to distribute the money.
The House shared control, and speakers began to realize their job was a power center, not just a stepping stone.
The speaker’s power is statewide, but he faces only 150th of the state’s voters. Unlike the lieutenant governor and governor, he runs in just one of the 150 House districts, and then keep at least 75 House colleagues happy (or scared) enough to re-elect him every two years.
What “House” authors Patrick L. Cox and Michael Phillips call the “executive speakership” emerged in the 1970s. Speakers served longer, usually increasing their power. In Texas’ bi-partisan legislative operation, new House members found it prudent to join the sitting speaker’s team, rather than chance winding up on the committee to change light bulbs.
Speaker Billy Clayton (1975-83) wanted to run for agriculture commissioner in 1978, after incumbent John C. White joined President Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1977. Texas had switched from two-year to four-year terms for most statewide offices beginning in the 1974 election. But Reagan Brown, appointed in 1977 as interim agriculture commissioner, ran for election in 1978.
Clayton sought re-election, and won a third term – breaking the traditional two-term limit – and then broke his own record by winning a fourth. That was despite a bribery charge, of which he was acquitted. But even so, it killed his statewide elective hopes.
Then Gib Lewis (1983-93) broke Clayton’s longevity record, serving 10 years. Pete Laney (1993-2003) also served 10 years. He would have served 12, and maybe more, but in 2003 lost the job to Tom Craddick, the first Republican speaker since just after the Civil War.
Laney, a moderate-conservative Democrat like Clayton and Lewis, is considered by many House members as the gold standard for recent speakers. “The House Will Come to Order” says his longevity was due to his management ability, allowing members to vote their districts rather than a party line.
Laney’s tenure looked even more golden after a few years of Craddick, who helped engineer redistricting coups to unseat senior Democrats in the House and the Texas congressional delegation. The shuffle brought the first GOP majorities in the Texas House and congressional delegation in more than a century.
Craddick’s dictatorial style alienated some House Republican as well as Democrats. In 2009, a rump group of 11 frustrated Republicans voted with most of the House’s Democrats to replace Craddick with moderate Republican Joe Straus of San Antonio.
Straus was even-handed like Laney in dealing with members of the other party during his first legislative session. But since then, he’s courting more conservative Republican members. He knows that Democrats were responsible for his election, but also that they would dump him in favor of a Democrat if they win a majority.
So ironically, to continue as speaker, Straus needs to keep or expand a Republican House majority – but not too large, for fear of a coup from the right. We’ll see if he can successfully walk that tightrope.
Whether the House Republicans improve or hold their 77-73 edge over Democrats, or Democrats retake control, will have a big impact on legislative redistricting and budget battles in the 2011 legislative session. It also could affect whether Texas will regain a degree of solution-oriented bipartisan cooperation, or go the way of Congress and winnertake all partisan warfare.
Longtime Texas political columnist Dave McNeely, who retired from the Austin American-Statesman in 2004, writes a weekly column on Texas politics for three dozen Texas newspapers. With longtime Dallas journalist and author Jim Henderson, McNeely is the author of “Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 458-2963.