You might not know it, but there is actually a House Speaker’s race that will conclude in less than three months.
The level of interest is certainly muted compared to 2019. Perhaps this is because we are approaching one of the most important elections in history, where President Trump appears to be the only thing standing between the United States and socialism. Perhaps it is because the grassroots have given up on the hope of a conservative Speaker after so many legislators tried to sell them a do-nothing purple session as a conservative victory and protect a Speaker mired in scandal.
It’s probably a little of both. But though it is unlikely that a conservative firebrand will lead the House in 2021, grassroots conservatives still have a role to play in impacting the race.
After a do-nothing session of the legislature intended to placate Democrats, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen retired in disgrace after being implicated in a scandal where he allegedly made false public statements, targeted members of his own party running for re-election, and attempted to trade press credentials in exchange for campaign favors. If that weren’t enough to draw into question the judgment of Republican legislators’ selection, he has since made public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and attacking businesses that did not forcibly mask their customers. Though Bonnen has indicated he intends to serve out his term, his retirement means legislators will select a new Speaker for the 2021 session.
In 2019, the House Republican Caucus adopted a process similar to the United States Congress, where it selects a Speaker nominee in caucus and political pressure is applied to enforce that choice in a floor vote. The caucus vote will likely take place in December, with a floor vote taking place the first day of the 2021 session, January 12.
Assuming Republicans do not lose eight seats or more in the general election, Republicans will hold a majority and the Speaker nominee will be that chosen in caucus. However, if the GOP seat margin is only one or two, it is possible a liberal GOP member could defect to choose a Democrat Speaker on the floor or leverage that threat to induce GOP caucus members to select a more moderate GOP Speaker than chosen in caucus.
Because of recent GOP losses in the House and the very silent campaign being run, it will be very difficult to affect the selection by showing support for a particular person. However, by focusing support on a platform, grassroots activists can best impact the race. I wrote a column one year ago making the case that certain reforms are necessary to reset the balance of power in the Texas House between the members and the Speaker.
Specifically, I proposed a series of checks on future Speakers to better ensure the office is less likely to be abused and allow the elected representatives to have more control, including (1) Speaker term limits, (2) rotating chairmanships, (3) transparency in committee selection, (4) direct floor access for bills co-authored by a supermajority of the House, and (5) seniority picks for procedural committees.
These are not “pie in the sky” reforms. In fact, Rep. Phil King ran for Speaker in 2017 on a platform including most of these changes. By supporting a platform rather than a person, grassroots can not only influence their representative’s choice of Speaker, but may also influence candidates to push for these reforms in an effort to gain more grassroots support.
COVID-19 has added an additional consideration that is equally, if not more, important than the member-Speaker power balance: electing a Speaker who promises to restore power from an out of control executive to the legislative branch of government.
King Gov. Greg Abbott abused the very limited power afforded to him by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 to effectively usurp the constitutional function of the legislature. The No. 1 priority next session needs to be curtailing the governor’s emergency powers to not only open and unmask Texas, but also to provide businesses with some certainty that their ability to exist won’t be unilaterally taken away by a future governor invoking a real or perceived emergency.
Why is the Speaker selection so important to accomplish this?
First, the Speaker will have total control over whether reform is enacted. He is able to fully control the membership of the most powerful procedural committees deciding which bills will be heard on the floor. By appointing only his most trusted allies to those positions, the Speaker has almost absolute control over what legislation reaches the floor and is passed. So it is important that any Speaker takes an unequivocal public stand in favor of curbing the governor’s power in this area.
Second, a reform bill must be brought through the process on an expedited timetable to ensure the legislature has a chance to override any veto. A Speaker can easily kill legislation opposed by the governor by delaying action until the end of session when a veto cannot be overridden. The grassroots should demand that a Speaker commit to passing a bill out of the chamber in early March to best ensure it will be passed in time to override any veto.
Lastly, the grassroots should demand a complete break from the ineffective and scandal-ridden Bonnen speakership. There is no reason to believe that any member who was at the top of Bonnen’s power hierarchy will cede power in any way to the members or change course from the abysmal 2019 session.
Conservatives shouldn’t lose sight of the silent House Speaker’s race currently being run. Using what influence they have to demand structural reforms, pushback on executive overreach and a clean break from the disastrous Bonnen speakership is worthy of effort and can have a significant policy impact in 2021.