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Guest Column: My Lege in a Box

Call it the Justin Timberlake Treatment: The Legislature has found itself boxed in as it searches for a way out of the budget divide.

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The legislative deadlock over the budget brings into sharp definition the box in which the Legislature is now confined. The House and Senate budget bills both reduce state spending by billions, with the Senate version currently about $4 billion higher in state spending than the House version. The comparatively generous Senate versions would mean something like an $11 billion cut from the current baseline of $187.5 billion. The bulk of the cuts in both versions will come in social services and moneys that pass through to local entities, especially school districts. Legislators express regret and worry over these facts but offer no real discussion of raising the revenue necessary to avoid cuts on this scale. The storyline of the moment is how and when the House and Senate will reconcile the differences between a bill that is draconian and one that is merely brutal. A conference committee has found agreement on many of the financial issues separating the two chambers — except on what is likely the biggest difference: how much (or how little) to spend on public and higher education.

For those involved in or close to the legislative process, there’s an inevitable tendency to focus myopically on the internal dynamics of the legislative process as the determinative factors in the process. Press coverage and Capitol scuttlebutt, repackaged and spread by blogs and social networks like Twitter, dwell obsessively on every turn of the internal politics of the Legislature as sine die draws near and the appetite for information become voracious. This happens for good reasons. As time runs short, factors like the parliamentary maneuvers of the last few weeks, the relations among legislators and factions in each chamber, and the perpetual rivalry between the two chambers all loom large in the life and death of the legislative agendas of members, interest groups and lobbyists. Within this approach to framing the budget situation, the budget has emerged from the will of the chamber, spurred by fiscal conservatives allied with the new class of anti-government House freshmen and enabled by tentative and permissive leadership from the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House, respectively.

But while the internal dynamics of the Legislature set the pace of day-to-day events and shape the outcome of the more specific matters before the Legislature, forces beyond the Legislature have placed the members in a sturdy box from which there is no escape. Gov. Rick Perry’s political and institutional power form two walls of this box; the array of political and cultural forces reasonably summed up in the phrase “Tea Party” form another side; the identification of the national Democratic Party with President Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, congressional Democrats form the fourth side. A box, like so many other things, has to have a bottom, even if it’s just a metaphor, and the alarmingly sclerotic Texas Democratic Party and its beleaguered, demobilized social base, are the bottom of the box. This box has trapped the Legislature and, for that matter, the state, in the cramped budget debate to be played out between now and May 30, and perhaps beyond if a special session is called, which appears increasingly likely.

The governor’s box

The box holding the Legislature is largely though not wholly of Perry’s construction. The governor projects the constitutionally limited power of the office to more effect than any recent governor and is using this power to severely constrain the range of budget options discussed in the Legislature. This power emanates in part from electoral success, particularly his trouncing of Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White last year, and from his decade-plus tenure in the office. He has effectively translated his loyal voter base and his support in the state’s business sector into a powerful political network that can also be deployed to affect the Legislature in ways that transcend the constitutional limitations of the office. 

The network of political organizations that helped propel his political success in the elections has seamlessly pivoted to the Legislature. An array of effective political forces of the moment provides him with building blocks to wall in more moderate conservatives in the Legislature. These entities — including the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility — have little public profile beyond the audience for insider politics, but they are playing actively and effectively in legislative politics. 

Last week’s reports of a phone campaign featuring recordings of Perry urging recipients to pressure their legislators to resist using the Rainy Day Fund or to raise taxes or even non-tax revenue was a timely reminder of the political machinery around him. The phone campaign reportedly pointed to one of the websites of conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and is a component of a campaign that is aimed directly at legislators. Media campaigns such as the ads purchased by the Texas Public Policy Foundation are also being used to pressure legislators though their constituents. Reports of a senator’s spouse receiving one of the calls underlined the boldness of these groups and, even if unintentional, highlighted the governor’s willingness and ability to blatantly pressure the Legislature, including the august upper house. 

The political groups so aggressively promoting the governor’s agenda in effect function in tandem with the governor’s dominance of the executive leadership of the state through his appointments to boards and commissions, and his skillful use of executive staff in dealings with the Legislature. After 10 years in office, Perry appointees dominate state government and provide another line of resistance to legislative resistance. 

At the very least, the governor’s ubiquitous appointees provide a tripwire in fighting the Legislature on budget matters; at best, they spearhead policy offensives and enforce budget orthodoxy. And, when necessary, the governor can simply remind the Legislature that he is willing to challenge it in style as well as substance, as he did during negotiations with the house over using the Rainy Day Fund. The fund was tapped to make up the shortfall in the current budget, but only after using it for the next biennium was taken off the table — and the governor’s staff very publicly stood up the Appropriations Committee. The recent battles over Perry’s higher education agenda, and the legislative response in the form of the joint oversight committee chaired by Rep. Dan Branch and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, present a relatively rare instance in which the Legislature is visibly pushing back against the governor and his appointees. 

Walled in by the Tea Party

No account of the 82nd Legislature is complete without accounting for the influence of the Tea Party movement. What we call the Tea Party is, of course, more a messy bunch of feelings and impulses than a political party or even an interest group (though, there are, I know, organized Tea Party groups). But however loosely aligned and undefined “it” is, Tea Party activism in the 2010 election has morphed into a specter haunting the legislative process in Texas. Republican members are clearly spooked by the threat of primary challenges from their right emanating from the Tea Party wing of the party — particularly if Tea Party rhetoric can be matched to resources and consulting from the more organized allied groups like Empower Texans. The threat to legislators here is very real, however hard it is to measure or predict in any specific way. 

Increased participation in legislative process and politics amplifies the electoral threat posed by the Tea Party impulse. The involvement of Tea Party-affiliated groups and Empower Texans in the active opposition to Joe Straus’ re-election as speaker had a strong demonstration effect, even though Straus was easily re-elected. The anti-Straus mobilization signaled that outside groups can and will deploy Tea Party rhetoric and followers to participate in matters previously seen as the province of insiders to the process.

Public opinion surveys illustrate the presence of the Tea Party in the collective political consciousness in the state. In the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, when offered the option of voting for a hypothetical Tea Party candidate, support fluctuated between 16 percent and 23 percent in five polls between February 2010 and February 2011. Of those who showed interest in the Tea Party in this context, about half were self-identified Republicans and about 45 percent were independent identifiers. Among Republican-registered voters, by February 2011 almost a third chose the Tea Party candidate in the hypothetical heats. The Tea Party label remains potent among Republican voters, as do the interest groups threatening and cajoling in the name of the Tea Party. These conditions loom ever present in the minds of legislators.

The national political environment

The manifestation of the national political climate in the politics of the Legislature forms the final wall of the box constraining the budget process. The political orthodoxy that is now de rigueur among Republicans — including center-right Republicans such as Straus — holds that Texas is the paragon of political economic virtue in distinction to the two paragons of fiscally degenerate liberal subversion of America: the state of California and the federal government. The latter, this orthodoxy holds, has sunk to new lows under the Obama presidency. Obama’s approval numbers suggest that he turns even the most Dr. Jekyll of Republicans into wide-eyed Mr. Hydes. In the February 2011 UT/Tribune survey, 90 percent of Republican registered voters disapproved of Obama’s job performance, not a huge surprise in the current polarized environment and, more to the point, in Texas. But 81 percent disapproved strongly, which is consistent with the last year of polling in the state. The lesson was internalized quickly and effectively by Perry very early on: If you want to get Texas Republicans blood boiling, invoke the president’s name. Just ask Hutchison.

The negative reaction to the president has rubbed off on the Democratic label in the state, and by extension to anything that can be associated with his policy initiatives. If you don’t like a policy proposal in the Texas Legislature right now, one quick way to contaminate it is to associate it with the Obama administration. The outcome of the health care reform legislation passed by Congress — more easily recognized by its proper name in Texas, Obamacare — is the most prominent example here, but other examples abound. This dynamic is not restricted to policy, either. Even in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals, 10 Republicans found it necessary not to support a resolution, HR 1694, praising Obama and the killing of bin Laden. In this climate, it has proven easy to link any approach other than the new zero-revenue orthodoxy position to the spendthrift Obama administration, against which Texas stands as a counterexample. Obama’s radioactivity among Republican voters has strengthened conservatives’ hand and helped poison discussion of alternatives to the prevailing approach.

The flipside of the intense disapproval of the president and the symbolic capital it creates for Republicans is the growing political currency of the “Texas model” on the national stage. The national media and the governor spent much of the last two years comparing the approach to government in Texas, stylized as a low-tax, small-government, business-friendly recipe for growth and prosperity, to the rest of the flailing economy. The governor has invested in the propagation of this message, and for his efforts has become personally associated with the so-called Texas model. Newt Gingrich, in his round of media appearances following the announcement of his presidential candidacy last week, even invoked what “Rick Perry and others have done in Texas” as an example of his approach to economic policy. This notion that Texas has found a recipe for success, and that it involves dogged watchfulness over government growth, informs the current budget discussion, as do the political implications of the governor’s association with this model in the national arena.

Legislative Democrats: The bottom of the box

There are no prizes for Democrats at the bottom of this box — they are the bottom upon which the miseries of the budget process are ignominiously piled. Though one might think that Republican hegemony in the Legislature would be unambiguously empowering, the absence of an effective opposition, ironically, also boxes in the legislative leadership on budget issues. Effective opposition creates the necessity — and, for pragmatists and moderates, the opportunity — to engage in the much hallowed “spirit of bipartisanship” that political leaders love to invoke, especially when there is a deal in the air. But in the days of 101-to-49 and even 19-to-12 Republican majorities, the circumstances in which Republican leaders either need to — or can — compromise with Democrats are increasingly rare. The magnitude of Republican dominance, augmented this session by a very conservative class of House freshmen, has decreased the maneuvering room of the budget chairmen in both houses, both of whom have expressed willingness to move beyond the initial version of HB 1. Rep. Jim Pitts sent this signal immediately after the House budget bill passed; Sen. Steve Ogden went so far as to try to get some Rainy Day money against the express wishes of the governor, and continues to do so at press time. 

But few Republicans are willing to say out loud that the budget as it stands is too severe and merits consideration of using the Rainy Day Fund or reconsidering the revenue issue. The Democrats remain sidelined in the discussion, unable to offer any real reason to compromise with them. Left with only rhetorical and occasionally procedurally bothersome tools, the Democrats can help neither themselves nor the increasingly frustrated and helpless pragmatists among the Republican leadership. As the Democrats lash out, the Republicans lose patience and exercise power more nakedly — without materially changing the terms of the budget debate. Ogden and Pitts are effectively the left edge of the range of discussion as a direct result of the Democrats’ limited power.

Which brings us back to the essence of the box the Legislature finds itself in as the regular session nears its close. The state is approaching a moment of truth borne of an evolutionary leap in the Texas political system. The budget is animated by a vision not just of limited government, but a rollback and retrenchment of the state’s obligation to education and the social safety net. There is no question that this vision will be realized in the budget process; the only unknown is the degree of success in the realization.

Members of the Legislature often speak of the results of their work as “the will of the body,” but the budget that passes out of this Legislature will be a triumph of the will of the governor and those allied with him. To the extent that the budget and its impact on the people of the state serve as the epitome of the governor and his supporters’ vision of government and its newly limited commitments, the box in which he placed the Legislature promises to come in handy as a soapbox to boost his presence for a larger audience.

James Henson directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. He also is co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll with Daron Shaw.

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Politics State government 82nd Legislative Session Barack Obama Bill White Budget Griffin Perry Joe Straus Rainy Day Fund Rick Perry Texas Democratic Party Texas Legislature