Lawmakers in the Texas House and the U.S. House of Representatives have something in common these days. Both bodies are facing serious decisions about who will lead them going into the new year, and both are hearing from constituents about this important decision. Interestingly, they also seem to have this in common—an absolute tin ear when it comes to understanding just why voters back home care about who is the Speaker of the House.
Not so long ago in Texas, “the people” were more or less excluded from the process of electing the speaker. They still are—House members alone hold the right to vote on this, as it should be—but in 2008, a U.S. district court struck down spending limits on the speaker’s race and the prohibition on outside groups making contributions. As much as Speaker Straus and his cohorts may dislike it, this is the reality now, celebrated at the time by groups as disparate as the ACLU and the Free Market Foundation. It was a stunning victory for free speech rights and remains so. For after all, the first and arguably most important vote in the Texas House is the vote for who will lead. Who will appoint committee chairmen and members, who makes parliamentary rulings, who guides and—here it is again—leads the chamber’s agenda.
Is it any wonder that outside groups—be they lobbyists, activist organizations, tea party groups, or just plain old individuals—have spent so much energy weighing in? This decision is the same as all the rest members will make throughout session. They have to decide on their own which way they will vote – and they have a chance to listen to their constituents to help guide them. That’s what they were elected to do. Listen to the people who call, fax, and email, and take their opinions into account. To dismiss that communication out of hand is to send a message back home that what “you” think doesn’t really matter at all. If that hand-waving is considered acceptable on this vote, what else will they turn away from their constituents on? Education? Tax increases? Medicaid? Gambling? The budget?
In Washington, the decision is made somewhat differently than in Texas, though it is no less important. And when the voters hear that their agenda is being discounted even before the new session begins, it can’t be any great wonder that they begin to question the presumptive leader.
If in the end, leadership remains the same and the status quo is affirmed, representatives cannot expect that they will be “safe” from constituent ire over one issue or another. Because the title, you see, is “Representative.” Taking the oath means upholding the governing documents of the respective bodies, and it also means representing the views of those pesky constituents back home. “Feeling heat” from voters back home is literally part of the job description. It is not toxic to say so—it is simply the founder-imposed reality of American, and Texan, government.
The decision on leadership, like every other vote, ultimately lies with the representative. If he or she is so unwilling to take into account voters’ opinions, regardless of whether voters ultimately agree with that decision, then “Representative” is no longer a fitting title.