Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trending to Gridlock

Unfortunately, there are signs that our Texas Legislature is headed in the wrong direction.  Controlling members of the Republican Party appear to want it to become more and more like Congress.  In Congress, the “winner take all” attitude seems to prevail, which has produced gridlock for the American people.  

The majority party in the Congress is generally ruled by the partisan party caucus, which happens to be the Republicans at this time.  Committee chairs are selected by the caucus and are members of the majority party only.  It seems those who desire to implement such a system in our Legislature should take note that the current approval rating of our Congress is the lowest in the history of the United States--below 20%.

A recent indicator that things are about to change in our Legislature of Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst’s primary defeat by Ted Cruz.  It seems Governor Dewhurst, who has been fairly evenhanded and bi-partisan in running the Senate, now intends to take a sharp right turn to satisfy the Texas Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  Heretofore, chairmanships in the Senate were passed out generally on ability and interest in particular areas of government.  Even in earlier times when only 2-4 members of the Senate were Republicans, there were Republicans who chaired major committees of the Senate.  Recently, Governor Dewhurst removed Democrat Senator Zaffirini of Laredo--second in seniority in the Senate--from chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee.  She has been replaced by an ultra-conservative radio host who now happens to be a member of the Texas Senate.  For several sessions the right wing of the Republican Party has advocated that a “winner take all” policy should prevail.  As a result, since Republicans have run the table on elections for the last several cycles, we may expect every chairmanship to be awarded to a Republican both in the House and Senate. 

As even more evidence of his attempt to veer to the right, Gov. Dewhurst's recent appearance was reported by the Associated Press at Ted Cruz’ victory party in Austin.  It seems Governor Dewhurst made an additional pledge to be more conservative in his approach to leadership of the Texas Senate.

The right-wing of the Republican Party has also expressed its dissatisfaction with the current Speaker of the House.  Speaker Joe Straus was elected at a time when the House was almost evenly divided with a slight Republican majority. Straus helped to oust then-Speaker Craddick, whose heavy-handed rule over the House drew dissatisfaction not only from most Democrats but also many moderate Republicans.  Speaker Straus was elected with almost as many Democrats voting for him as Republicans.  Naturally, thereafter, committee chairmanships were pretty well divided among both parties. 

In his first Speaker re-election effort, Straus faced opposition from the religious fundamentalist wing of the party on the grounds that Texas deserved to have a “good” Christian to preside over the House.  This is in view of the fact that Speaker Straus is of the Jewish faith.  Fortunately for Texas, the effort to oust Speaker Straus on this premise failed miserably.

However, currently, a new effort is being mounted and Straus has an opponent in his effort to retain the speakership of the House.  Among the battle cries of those in opposition to the Speaker are those who object to his appointing any Democrats to chairmanships or positions of power within the House structure.

The Texas Legislature, for many long years, has been divided among progressive and conservative lines.  But fortunately for Texas, a collegial atmosphere has prevailed in which members of the Legislature of all political ilks have managed for the most part to work together on major challenges which face the Legislature.  As it was put to me early in my career in the House by a dear friend--whose political philosophy was pretty much opposite mine--the longer you serve in the Legislature, the less important it becomes whether you are a conservative or liberal, but rather whether or not you can be trusted and your word relied on.  Such an attitude in the Texas Legislature has allowed us to avoid the stifling gridlock which now possesses Congress in Washington.

The recent election has increased the number of Democrats who will serve in the next session of the Legislature to the extent that Republicans no longer have a super majority, which constitutionally is required sometimes in an effort to move serious legislation quickly.  A highly partisan system would not be conducive whatsoever to cooperation when such needs arise to deal with matters critical to all of the citizens of Texas.

In the Senate, as well, such an attitude of total control by the prevailing party could lead to major changes in the way the Senate has been run for almost 100 years.  For example, although government teachers will tell you the Lieutenant Governor of Texas possesses great power, his power does not stem from the Constitution or the fact the lieutenant governor is elected by the entire population of the state.  Generally, the lieutenant  governor’s power stems only from rules of the Senate, which can be changed by a simple majority vote of the members of the body.

The current rules, which have been in existence for a long time, provide that the lieutenant governor shall appoint members of each committee and generally control the calendar of action for bills pending before the entire body.  This rules provision makes Texas somewhat unique among most of the states of the union.  In other states, such as Louisiana, committee chairs and committee members are determined by party caucus, and the lieutenant  governor’s role is reduced to pretty much a figurehead who only presides over the Senate and can only vote in the event of a tie. 

Members of the Legislature should strongly resist an effort to fashion our Texas Legislature after the ways of Congress.  Texas has many challenges facing it in the coming few years, none of which would be helped by gridlock.

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