Article 3, Section 9 (b) of the Texas Constitution says: “The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a Speaker from its own members.”
Speakers’ races in the Texas Legislature have always been colorful--most of the time controversial--and generally influence the course of the legislative session. The Legislative Session of 2011 will meet all of those criteria.
Past speakers’ races generally provide great entertainment for those of us who thrive on watching politics. The coming year’s speaker’s race demonstrates clearly once again that Democrats and Republicans have one thing in common. Once they obtain power by defeating the other side, they generally turn to fighting with one another for who will get to exercise the recently gained power.
The 2008 election produced a closely divided Texas House of Representatives. Only 2-3 votes separated the number of Democrats and Republicans. There was a good deal of bitterness over Speaker Craddick, who used the Tom DeLay School of hard-nosed politics, and who exercised dictatorial powers over the House to the extent that he offended many Republicans. There was a House revolt of moderate Republicans who joined with a large number of Democrats and proceeded to elect a moderate Republican, Joe Straus, III, of San Antonio, speaker of the House. Most people throughout the 2009 Session found Straus laid back and judged him to rule the House evenhandedly. Apparently, evenhandedness and openness does not suit the new Republican majority of 99 in the Texas House of Representatives.
No sooner had it become evident that Republicans had obtained a near super-majority in the Texas House of Representatives than the clamor arose for a more conservative type of Republican to be speaker. Before all of the votes were counted, Representative Christian of Center, Texas, chairman of the Republican caucus, started contacting new members and informing them that the Republican Party expected them to toe the Republican conservative line and that non-conservative Republicans would not be tolerated. Further, Christian and others began running up the trial balloon that the Texas House, like the United States House of Representatives, should elect its leader by caucus.
In other words, if the Republican caucus were to meet with its 99 new members and 46 of them decide that someone other than Straus should be speaker, the Republican leadership proposes that person should be the speaker. It doesn’t seem to matter that, by that method, 104 members of the House would be disenfranchised from having any say in their own presiding officer.
An even nastier aspect of hard-nosed politics has arisen in the current speaker’s race. Apparently right-wing Republicans are sending out robo-calls and mass mailings to conservative members’ districts urging them to vote for a “Christian” speaker and urging them to support one of the two ultra-conservatives running for speaker. Straus is Jewish. Even nastier comments have been posted on blogs urging members not to vote to let “Jewish Bosses” take over the Texas House of Representatives. As one House member said, “It’s so distasteful, it could give Christianity a bad name.”
These instances provide evidence that we have not advanced much beyond the worst elements of our civilization when policymakers are unable to see, much less eradicate, either ignorance or antisemitism from their own ranks.
Thus far it appears Straus is holding onto approximately 100 votes to re-elect him speaker. To their credit, all but three or four Republicans have not yielded to the right-wing, bigotry pressure to vote against Straus because of his religion or because he is a moderate influencing the House. I predict Straus will succeed in being re-elected speaker for at least one other term.
In the late 1950's the selection of the speaker changed slightly. Prior to the late 50's selection of the speaker of the Texas House was largely a good ole boy, insider process. Handshakes were used more than written pledges and personal relationships and friendships were probably more important than political philosophy at that time. Unfortunately for liberals in Texas they developed the system that worked once, but it was better suited for special interests and big-money lobbyists.
During the election in 1960 Jimmy Turman, a fairly liberal educator, was selected speaker. Labor and more liberal groups campaigned by supporting various candidates for election based on their commitment to vote for Turman as speaker. It was the first time that a speaker’s race had become involved in the election of individual members. The so-called Texas liberals soon learned they had made a bad mistake. This was a process tailor-made for special interests and lobbyists who were able to fund large sums of money in the election of House members. After the election of Turman, conservatives used the same technique to elect Byron Tunnell, Ben Barnes and Gus Mutcher. Then, for the first time, a scandal brought some reform to the way speakers were selected. It came in the form of Sharpstown.
Speaker Mutcher was convicted of accepting a bribe. Over 60 new members were elected to the House and Price Daniel, Jr. was elected speaker as the reformed leader of the Texas House. Although Daniel refused to accept or solicit written pledges for speaker, he would accept a commitment for a vote of a member during election time by that member holding a press conference and pledging to vote for reform in the form of electing Price Daniel, Jr. speaker. Daniel was elected and brought to the office with him several needed reforms. Accountability of money solicited and spent in the effort to elect a speaker was required for the first time; openness in the process was required. Unfortunately, although many of the Daniel reforms stayed, pretty much the same old system of getting written pledges became the norm after Daniel.
Allowing the Democratic or Republican caucus to select the speaker of the House would be a giant step backwards. In fact, the current pledge system means many of the members of the House have little or no say in naming their presiding officer. A much needed reform in the selection of speaker would require that no written commitment could be asked for or given prior to the general election which immediately preceded the regular session. The penalty for doing so should be a small fine and a disqualification from holding public office. It would be enough deterrent that no sane member of the House would risk forfeiting his right to hold office in order to try to get a pledge card from a member.
This reform would also remove the specter of withholding campaign funds from a candidate for the House of Representatives unless he committed to a certain speaker. It would also allow everyone in the House to be on equal footing and have an equal say in who their presiding officer would be during the period of time between the November elections and the January Regular Session.
I doubt seriously if this idea will gain any more traction than it did when I introduced this reform in the late 1970's in the House of Representatives. But as I have frequently said, being right is too often the consolation prize in politics.