State Primer: The Role of the Texas State House in Limiting Conservative Policy Victories
by: Wade Miller
Texas has long been synonymous with rugged independence, an embodiment of the grit and perseverance that have animated generations of Americans that founded, built, and defended our nation. As the second most populous state and the largest governed by Republicans, Texas occupies a unique place in our increasingly tribal political climate.
If Texas were its own country (as it was for nearly 10 years of its history), it would be the ninth-largest economy in the world. Rich in natural resources, expansive in landmass, and with comparatively few regulations and no state income tax, Texas offers much to be desired.
Texas also has a reputation as a bastion of conservatism. Unfortunately, state policy set in Austin rarely reflects this perception. For example, Texas was only the twelfth state to pass a “heartbeat” bill outlawing abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, nearly eight years after North Dakota became the first state to enact such legislation. Texas has yet to enact any private school choice program or advance education savings account (ESAs) despite the precedents established by eight other states.
The Texas Enterprise Fund, which doles out taxpayer money to entice corporations with hyper-progressive politics to relocate to the state, is proudly touted as the largest state corporate welfare agency in the country. On most hot-button issues, including the Second Amendment, vaccine mandates, and mask mandates, Texas lags behind other states that have acted to advance conservative policies both more swiftly and more comprehensively.
Things could be worse. Texas finally passed heartbeat legislation in 2021 as well as an election integrity bill designed to mitigate the potential for voter fraud. Texas was also one of the first states to pass legislation attempting to ban CRT in the classroom.
It is important to note that each victory must be seen against the backdrop of 19 years of unified Republican control of the state government. An immense investment of time, money, and resources provided by conservative activists and legislators has increasingly made it impossible for the GOP establishment to ignore the priorities of the GOP’s base. Nevertheless, the state is hardly a conservative vanguard. There are many reasons for this reality. Foremost among them is the political culture of the Texas State House.
Background: Fundamentals of the Texas Legislature
The Texas Legislature is one of only four remaining state legislatures in the country that holds its legislative sessions every other year. The biennial schedule of both the Texas State House and State Senate means that lawmakers only meet for roughly five months every two years, unless a special session is called by the governor. This structure presents both inherent strengths and weaknesses when it comes to policymaking.
A clear strength is that lawmakers in Texas are effectively part-time legislators, meaning most legislators have other jobs and priorities that they tend to when the Legislature is not in session. This dynamic helps diminish the appeal of “politician-as-profession” that has resulted in a permanent political class in Washington and state capitals throughout the country. Additionally, the biennial legislative sessions ensure that legislators have comparably fewer opportunities to consider or implement potentially harmful laws in Texas and must therefore carefully orient their priorities.
The weaknesses of this structure are also evident. The biennial session means that the bicameral body is potentially less responsive to both unforeseen events and, in the case of the State House, the concerns of the people members are elected to represent. Should a particular policy issue become a top-of-mind concern for voters in an off-year when the Legislature is not in session, lawmakers remain at the mercy of a special session call by the governor to address voters’ needs. The ongoing number of issues arising from the COVID pandemic have made this weakness far more pronounced.
How the Texas House Works
In recent years, the lower chamber of the Texas Legislature has been a case study in the limitations of Texas’ reputation as a conservative powerhouse. While the body has been under GOP majority control since 2003, it has proven less amenable to conservative legislative efforts than the State Senate.
First, in order to understand the shortcomings of the Texas State House, some key fundamentals about that body:
Proposed legislation must go through three stages in the House before passage: First Reading (committee referral), Second Reading (introduction on the House floor for debate), and Third Reading (House vote).
After a committee considers legislation, it then issues a report on the bill (including the committee vote breakdown of the bill) and a referral to the Committee on Calendars or the Committee on Local and Consent Calendars. These two committees then schedule the referred bill for a vote by the full House.
Bills may be amended during both the second and third reading. For House floor consideration, a quorum (100 members) must be present. During the second reading, the legislation can be amended via a simple majority vote of members present. During the third reading, legislation must be amended via a two-thirds majority of members present. Bill passage requires a simple majority.
In the first 60 calendar days of the session, members have an unrestricted ability to introduce as many bills as they desire. Once that deadline expires, the House only permits the introduction of emergency appropriations bills, local bills, or bills aligned with the priorities submitted by the governor to be introduced. Any legislation that falls outside those parameters after the end of the filing deadline requires four-fifths (120 out of 150) of House members to approve its introduction.
Additionally, bills deemed to be emergency priorities by the governor are considered to be fast-tracked and allowed to receive a vote within the first 60 days of the session before other bills are considered on the House floor.
Composition of the Texas House
In the 87th Legislature, Republicans held an 83-67 seat majority for most of the session, requiring 17 Democrat members to enact a quorum to conduct business on the State House floor. This dynamic received attention during the failed “quorum bust” fiasco employed by Texas Democrats in the summer of 2021 to delay the passage of election integrity legislation.
That maneuver, which saw dozens of Texas House Democrats flee to Washington D.C., proved to be a massive political, policy, and public relations blunder. Once the initial news cycle subsided, public sentiment soured on the stunt, members eventually returned to Austin, the quorum was met, and the election integrity bill passed.
In the special House elections that followed the “quorum bust,” Texas Republicans won both elections, including a district that was not previously competitive. For Texas Democrats, insult was subsequently added to injury when longtime Democratic Rep. Ryan Guillen switched his party affiliation to Republican. The GOP majority in the Texas House now amounts to 85 seats.
On paper, it sounds like conservatives have a lot going for them, and ushering through a strong agenda should be easily achieved each session. So what is the problem?
The Texas Speaker
When Texas transitioned from a Democrat-dominated state to Republican in the 1990s, many long-time Democratic elected officials switched parties to remain electable, or Republicans, used to being in the minority or unable to beat incumbent Democrats, were trained and conditioned to target moderate Democrats through centrist campaign rhetoric and policy positions. Ambitious individuals who wanted to eventually run for office and who would have identified as a Democrat previously, saw the writing on the wall and got involved with the Republican Party instead.
This created a pipeline of Republican lawmakers who were not conservatives. Many of those pipelines of left-leaning moderate influence persist today, with a majority of the Texas House Republican Caucus consistently voting in ways that agitate principled conservatives.
The policy agenda, therefore, naturally lagged with these newly-professed Republicans routinely voting in a manner out of alignment with the principles of conservatism. This dynamic produced an alliance between Democrats and left-leaning Republicans. The latter often relied on the former to kill legislation, keeping actual conservatives sidelined while maintaining the mirage of a traditional two-party system.
Since the GOP captured the Texas House in 2003, the role of Speaker has been held by four different individuals: Rep. Tom Craddick (2003-2007), former Reps. Joe Straus (2009-2017) and Dennis Bonnen (2019), and current Speaker, Rep. Dade Phelan (2021). Though all have been Republican speakers, each of these periods of leadership has seen its fair share of controversy and disappointment for conservatives.
Under Republican Rep. Tom Craddick’s tenure as Speaker, members launched an effort in 2007 to oust Craddick following accusations that he had turned the House into an institution driven by lobbyists and campaign contributions. When several Republican members tried to make a motion to remove Craddick, former Speaker Pro Tempore Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who is now mayor of Houston, squashed the efforts.
That messy fight saw a bipartisan group trying to vacate the Speaker’s chair while being thwarted by a bipartisan group loyal to Craddick. However, the damage was largely done and Craddick lost the Speaker’s race to Republican Rep. Joe Straus in 2009.
Straus remained Speaker through the end of the 85th Legislature in 2017 and forged his power by rallying the support of moderate Republicans with unified backing from Texas Democrats. Straus relied on a coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans to remain in power. This manifested not only in conservative priorities being routinely squashed, but also in conservatives being denied key committee positions with Democrats empowered through Committee Chairmanships.
This power dynamic eventually resulted in the formation of the Texas Freedom Caucus to organize opposition to the political maneuvering crushing conservative legislative priorities. Indeed, Straus’ tenure was marked by near-constant opposition from conservative Republicans in the Texas House frustrated at repeated refusal to advance key policies.
Some of these frustrated priorities included a failed effort to pass legislation keeping biological males out of female bathrooms in public facilities, blocked pilot programs for school choice, and an infamous adjournment of the 85th Legislature over loud opposition from members that killed conservative bills on privacy and paycheck protection.
Following Straus’s retirement at the end of 2017, former Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen was elected Speaker for the 86th Legislature. His one-session tenure came to an ignominious end when he was recorded attempting to offer a quid pro quo scheme to Empower Texans, a conservative activist group. Bonnen offered an approved list of Republicans to target in primary elections in exchange for providing the group’s publishing arm, Texas Scorecard, press credentials and an understanding that Republicans not on the Speaker’s list would not face primary opponents funded by Empower Texans.
In the most recent session, Rep. Dade Phelan succeeded the disgraced Bonnen and received near-unanimous support from Democrats. Comparatively, he has tolerated the advancement of more conservative policies than his predecessors. The Texas House finally passed heartbeat legislation curbing abortions, passed legislation attempting to ban CRT in K-12 public schools, and passed a bill in the special session with marginal improvements for the state’s election integrity mechanisms.
Is this a sign of a structural policy shift in favor of the majority party in power or merely a politically-savvy realignment designed to tamp down conservative frustration at the Texas GOP’s continued reluctance to advance the priorities of those who put them in power?
After 19 years, and little movement on the issue of abortion, Phelan faced the possibility of a political revolt among his base, at a moment of national anger regarding the unpreparedness by states to ensure and demonstrate the integrity of their elections and a parental revolt over CRT indoctrination in the classroom. These somewhat unusual political realities may have helped overcome the institutional obstacles that have stymied routine conservative victories in prior sessions.
In an effort to combat the GOP-controlled Texas House process of thwarting priority conservative agenda items, the Republican Party of Texas began issuing an official list of legislative priorities. One area of consistent improvement within the Texas GOP apparatus has been the influence of committed and principled conservatives to take control of the Republican Party itself. Current GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi was himself once a member of the Texas House Freedom Caucus. Efforts by the Texas GOP have made it harder for the Texas Speaker to use the process to suppress the conservative agenda, but it hasn’t stopped it from happening completely.
Other agenda items left unaddressed or under-addressed in the 87th legislature include protecting children from gender modification procedures, the protection of monuments from cancellation by the Marxist left, funding students instead of systems, a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, vaccine mandates, additional election integrity provisions, significantly driving down or eliminating property taxes, bold border security provisions, protecting the power grid, interstate compacts, healthcare freedom, and more.
One might assume that Texas law excels in its protection of the Second Amendment, but it was not until the 87th Legislature in 2021 that constitutional carry passed. That victory came not through the initiative of Texas GOP House Caucus but rather from a small group of committed conservative legislators and outside pressure brought to bear by Rachel Malone at Gun Owners of America, coordinating with and channeling the frustration of grassroots leaders across the state to ensure the interests of the Texans were met.
Ultimately, the Texas Speaker is responsible for the consistent frustration of conservative policy initiatives. But how does the Speaker wield power to maintain this dynamic?
An interesting dynamic within the State House is a longstanding tradition wherein the minority party is handed the chairmanships over some committees at the Speaker’s approval. Ostensibly, this tradition is designed to engender some comity and bipartisanship between the majority and the minority.
In reality, this practice has become a mechanism by which the majority allows the minority political opposition to thwart legislation that might be viewed as politically unpopular with the broader electorate. For conservative voters, this practice has become a major source of frustration. These bills routinely flow to committees chaired by Democrats or filled with lawmakers hostile to them with the approval of Republican leadership, often placing the future of the bill directly into the hands of Democrats in charge of specific committees, and ensuring the most loyal of lieutenants, if they are Republicans, are in a position to carry out the Speaker’s will in other key committees or positions of power.
A quick breakdown of the last four sessions reveals just how much power the Republican majority has given the Democratic minority in the Texas House.
In the 84th Legislature (2015), the Democratic minority chaired 12 out of 38 standing committees in the Texas State House or 32 percent of total standing committees. In the 85th Legislature (2017), this number increased as the Democratic minority chaired 15 out of 38 standing committees in the Texas State House or 40 percent of total standing committees.
In the 86th Legislature (2019), the Democratic minority chaired 14 out of 34 standing committees in the Texas State House or 41 percent of total standing committees. This included key chairmanships over both Public Health and the Homeland Security & Public Safety committee.
And in the most recent 87th Legislature (2021), the Democratic minority chaired 12 out of 34 standing committees in the Texas State House. This is 35 percent of the total standing committees and includes key chairmanships over Criminal Jurisprudence, Defense & Veterans Affairs, Natural Resources, Pensions & Financial Services, Public Education, and Transportation.
House dynamics regarding the election of the Speaker, a process that typically involves rallying Democrat votes, almost assuredly yields subsequent favors and quid pro quos, or at the very least creates a public perception that such a dynamic must be occurring. Moreover, the practice of waiting to pass significant legislation until the final days of the session has significant ramifications for public policy advancement. Many conservative bills in Texas have been killed with the “we just ran out of time” excuse.
A History of Stymied Policies
The Texas House, like the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of two legislative bodies. Its purpose is to craft new laws, repeal bad laws, appropriate funding for the various government agencies in Texas, and consider proposed constitutional amendments for submission to Texas voters.
As a majoritarian body, the Texas House is ostensibly designed to reflect the will of the broader electorate on any number of policy issues. Since 2003, the House has technically been under Republican control. However, key institutional and political dynamics call into question whether or not the Texas House is actually representing the people who elect them.
Policies stymied or delayed in this state dominated by Republicans include but are not limited to:
Reform Proposals and Their Implications
Lawmakers should consider a range of changes to better align the Texas House with the will of the electorate. These include, but are not limited to:
In total, the Texas House of Representatives convened 77 days of the 140 allotted in the 87th Legislature. As seen below, not utilizing the full legislative calendar at their disposal is a trend. The Speaker can choose to get to work, or if time actually runs out, the Governor can call back the Legislature to finish unfinished policy priorities.
As Texas lawmakers prepare for the upcoming 88th Legislature in January 2023, institutional and political dynamics should be clearly assessed to determine whether or not the Texas House is accurately reflecting the will of the broader electorate. Should Republicans maintain control of the House–or even expand their majority–members should consider changes to the composition of committees, changes to chairmanship designations, and bill filing reforms to ensure policies important to voters are not stymied or blocked before they can even be considered.
If the election results are mixed with power largely evenly distributed between the two parties, then past practices may be easier to defend within establishment circles. However, the goal of the GOP should be to advance conservative priorities no matter the makeup of the Legislature. Otherwise, voter frustration and policy stagnation may well continue and Texas may find itself as merely an unexceptional member of the “red state” pack instead of the frontrunner where it arguably belongs.
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