Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Joe Straus released his committee assignments for the 84th Texas House of Representatives. In the appointments, Straus continued his track record of marginalizing conservatives, engaging in cronyism with elites, and compromising with liberal “opponents.”
Because it would be rather unwieldy and tedious for a 150-member body to conduct all business on the floor, the Texas Constitution prescribes committees as the place where a large majority of the legislative work involved in passing a new law takes place. The theory is that these “working groups” can apply specialized scrutiny to specific issues in a broader context. For example a bill changing highway policy would go to the Transportation Committee.
Theoretically, committees are assigned by expertise (e.g. a representative with ranching experience would be placed on the Agriculture Committee) with the chairmanship going to a seasoned lawmaker with experience on the committee’s subject matter. A great deal of each committee’s power is concentrated in the hands of the committee chairman. The chairman has almost complete autonomy in governing his committee, determining the timing of hearings, deciding if a bill gets a hearing at all, and ultimately deciding if a vote will be called on a specific piece of legislation.
Using his power to refer bills to various committees with jurisdiction over their subject matter, the speaker is enabled to send bills to the committees he has stacked in order to ensure passage (or failure) of legislation that he either supports or opposes. As a result, committee assignments and chairmanships are handed out in an extremely politicized fashion, with the speaker’s most trusted allies being given positions of power.
Straus’ assignments follow that pattern. State Reps. Byron Cook and Charlie Geren chair powerful committees such as State Affairs and House Administration respectively. Both were members of the original “Polo Road Gang” of 11 Republicans that joined a united Democratic caucus to overthrow Republican House Speaker Craddick and put Joe Straus in charge of the body. State Rep. Jim Keffer, the only other remaining member of the coup after the rest were forced to resign due to scandal, swept out by conservative challengers, or defeated by conservatives in bids for higher office, was tapped to chair the Natural Resources Committee.
Further inspection of the committee chair positions by Rice University professor Mark Jones reveals exactly who the Speaker is beholden to: liberal Democrats and Republican moderates.
Out of the 38 standing committees, there are 25 Republican chairmen, 13 Republican vice chairmen, 13 Democratic chairmen, and 25 Democratic vice chairmen. Some will say that the divide in Republican vs. Democratic chairmen matches the 66% to 34% division of the House members eligible, but this does not explain the overrepresentation of Democratic vice chairmen.
Examined on a partisan level, Speaker Straus gives 50% of the control of the chamber to a Democratic party which holds barely more than a third of the membership and has been consistently repudiated in statewide elections.