A Winding Route to New Texas Congressional Map

U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady, District 8 of Texas, visits the floor of the Texas House on May 19, 2011.
U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady, District 8 of Texas, visits the floor of the Texas House on May 19, 2011.

When it comes to congressional redistricting in Texas, inaction is louder than words.

It’s all but certain now that when Texans go to the polls next year, they’ll elect their 36 members of Congress from maps drawn by federal judges — not by state legislators.

Texas outgrew the rest of the states during the last decade and, as a result, will have four more seats in Congress.

Three members of the congressional delegation are in dangerous waters. Francisco "Quico" Canseco of San Antonio and Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi are both freshman Republicans who won in districts that usually elect Democrats. Rep. Lloyd Doggett isn’t popular with the party drawing the maps. He’s a Democrat. He’s from Austin. And he wrestled with the governor after attaching strings to more than $800 million in federal education funds; the state accepted the money only after the strings were cut. Now, Gov. Rick Perry and others would like to draw a district he can't win. His best arguments are more likely to begin with “May it please the court” than with “Hey, buddy, I need a favor.”

The mapmakers in the statehouse have been busy, but not with congressional maps. They knocked out new maps for the State Board of Education pretty quickly, and those have already become law, albeit without Perry’s signature. State House and Senate maps are in the final stages. The combatants never really drew blood. The state Senate map gives each incumbent a district, putting only one — Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth — in political peril next year. The other districts should remain safely in the paws of current incumbents who choose to run.

The Texas House was a little rougher on its incumbents, but not much. There are eight or nine fewer safe Republican districts on the new map than there are Republican incumbents in the House. The GOP had a big election year in 2010, and it’s difficult to protect everyone who won. But the map increases the number of safe Republican seats and shrinks the number of swing districts. Fourteen of the 150 members will find themselves in districts that have two incumbents and will be forced to move to a safe spot or run against a colleague. Only two of those paired incumbents are Democrats.

That was all very political and — as Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo and chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, gently put it — very personal. Seliger’s House counterpart, Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, seems relieved to have the maps out of the way. Both are reasonably sure that the governor will let the maps become law without signing them, and besides, with this going to court anyway, why spill legislative blood? At least two federal lawsuits on Texas redistricting were filed before anyone had even presented a public map.

But where is the congressional map? Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas and have huge partisan advantages in the congressional delegation (23-9), the state Senate (19-12) and the state House (101-49).

Less than two weeks before the end of the 20-week legislative session, neither chairman had rolled out a congressional plan. They will, in the next few days, and while Solomons and Seliger might get the attention of the federal judges who finally settle this, getting legislative approval this late is unlikely.

The truth is, it’s just not a priority for most legislators. A few have made it known they would like to run for Congress. A few would rather not leave the cartography to the courts. A few suspect the lords of redistricting have been holding the map until the last minute to limit debate. Most don’t appear to be giving it a thought.

This isn’t an easy piece of politics. Most of the state’s population growth from 2000 to 2010 — 89 percent of it — was in minority populations, and most of that was attributed to Hispanics. Minorities in Texas tend to vote for Democrats. That has to be reflected in the maps for Congress, especially with new seats being drawn. The state is also overwhelmingly Republican, and Republicans would like the numbers to reflect that. With two Republicans in tough districts, there’s little chance the GOP will get more than 25 or 26 safe congressional districts out of a new map, and simply hanging on to what they’ve got would be a victory in itself.

Perry is unlikely to call lawmakers back for a special session on redistricting alone, aides say, although it could get added if some other issue — the budget, for instance — forces lawmakers into overtime this summer.

Barring that, it’s up to the judges.

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