The Texas State Legislature is a living museum of political lunacy. It features a taste of every offering off the far right menu. Gold freaks, fundamentalists, racists, conspiracy theorists, guns nuts, if it has ever shown up in a Facebook post from your wacky great-aunt, it has an enthusiastic sponsor among Republicans in Austin.
Despite holding a massive legislative majority and controlling every statewide office, most of the wildest ambitions of Texas Republicans have thus far been thwarted. Unlike Kansas, where unbridled Tea Party enthusiasm has delivered a government gripped by crisis and an economy in tatters, Texas remains minimally functional.
As bad as recent Legislatures have been, they could have been a lot worse. A decade ago a revolt by “moderates” deposed a fanatical House Speaker. He was replaced by Joe Strauss, a relatively rational Republican leader who derives much of his support from Democratic legislators. As our Congressmen in Washington look to replace John Boehner as House Speaker and climb out of the mire of hyper-partisan dysfunction he helped create, the Texas Model offers a lesson in how parliamentary politics can emerge from the swamps of extremism.
Boehner’s Congress may be the most broadly hated major political institution in our history. Every ounce of that vitriol has been richly earned. Unable to shepherd even the most banal legislation, Boehner prioritized his personal political survival over national priorities. The House under Boehner devolved into a disaster factory, yielding nothing of use to either his own party or the country at large.
Complicating Boehner’s term as Speaker was persistent discontent from his right flank. A third of his coalition was aligned with the Tea Party and unwilling to compromise not only with Democrats, but with Republicans or with any other force of politics or nature. Determined to refight the Civil War through legislative gridlock, this solid core of congressmen were committed to nothing so much as obstruction.
Under Boehner, Republicans in the House continued and even expanded a principle developed under the previous Republican speaker, Denny Hastert that blocked efforts at bipartisan lawmaking. Under the Hastert Rule, the use of Democratic votes to advance legislation was taboo. Almost nothing was allowed to pass unless it could be passed on the strength of Republican votes.
What Boehner failed to appreciate was that in a body of 435 members, a 70-member coalition of Tea Party nutjobs is not a majority. He was a prisoner of choice. There was a solution available that would not only have allowed him to pass reasonable legislation in the public interest, but might have helped him rescue the Republican Party from its own self-immolation. The Texas Model was available all along.
Texas’ experiment in bipartisan leadership has its origins in a rebellion by a small cohort of pragmatic Republicans at the opening of the 2009 legislative session. Democrats and Republicans alike were frustrated by the incumbent House Speaker’s autocratic, personally disrespectful, and ideologically batty leadership. Republicans held only a 2-seat majority in the House. By peeling away votes from eleven Republicans and enlisting the near-unanimous support of the House’s Democrats, the rebels succeeded in electing Joe Straus Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
By breaking the informal rule against electing a Speaker with bi-partisan support, Straus has built a remarkable power base. The Tea Party has consistently targeted him both in the Legislature and in his home district in suburban San Antonio. State Republican platforms have consistently targeted him with provisions designed to undermine his authority. He may be the most publically despised and privately cherished figure among the state’s Republican politicos.
In national terms, the Legislature under Straus’ leadership has been a bastion of extremist politics, but the results have been nowhere near as wild and disastrous as they might otherwise have been. Straus’ leadership helped to halt a bizarre effort to challenge the TSA’s security rules that threatened to shut down the state’s airports. Since he took leadership the House has softened an earlier law that would have made Bible classes in public schools mandatory. It has blocked efforts to repeal the Dream Act, the nation’s first law granting in-state tuition to undocumented children.
His leadership helped the House block efforts that would have begun the privatization of the state’s public schools, removed all gun-licensing restrictions, paid a $2000 bounty to anyone who apprehends a transgender person using the “wrong” public restroom, and asserted the state’s right to invalidate certain federal laws. More importantly, he has been able to maintain the basic functional integrity of a body infested with bizarre characters.
In the US Congress, the numbers and atmosphere are right to foster a Texas-style revolt. A potential Speaker who could line up significant, though perhaps not unanimous support among Democrats, perhaps 170 of the 188, would only need the support of 48 Republicans to win the gavel. There is no modern precedent for such an effort, but there is also no modern precedent for such a catastrophically ineffective Congress.
Constructing an effort like this might take time. However, this style of parliamentary politics embraced in the unlikeliest of places points to a nearly inevitable future in Congress. As the extremes in both parties harden their determination, the House will not likely return to proper function until the Texas Model prevails there.
Changes in the way our political system operates mean that one-party legislative rule is probably doomed to futility. As the parties themselves decline in power there is no reason to expect that they can continue to exercise such dominant influence in our legislative bodies.
We refer to “Tea Party” congressmen without a hint of acknowledgement of what the moniker implies. It is, in fact, a sub-partisan faction whose members deserve to be treated less as members of the majority party than as allies in a multi-party coalition. The Tea Party is probably just the beginning of an emerging collection of well-branded, publically acknowledged sub-partisan institutions. The Texas Model offers a method for House leadership to manage this evolving political reality. The structure of our system forces us to operate through dual parties, but it does not prevent coalitions among sub-parties across those party lines.
Boehner’s Congress was a whopping failure because neither he nor its other leadership figures were willing to countenance the end of binary, two-party legislative politics. Our next effective Speaker of the House, regardless which party they claim allegiance to, will probably preside over a sub-partisan, not bi-partisan coalition, even if everyone in it claims an “R” or “D” label.
He or she will be elected to their position by members of both parties. They will appoint committee chairmen from both parties. They will pass legislation using a shifting coalition of members from both parties. Being Speaker of the House in an atmosphere of fractured partisanship will be a tough job; considerably tougher than it used to be. Though, it still will not be as difficult as John Boehner made it look. If this model can impose some semblance of rationality in Texas, it can work anywhere.