You might not think of Santa as a powerful figure, but nobody talks smack about him when he is working that list of his.
With the Legislature — and its leadership — facing high turnover this year, the power comes with the ability to decide who gets what.
House Speaker Joe Straus has some big prizes in the gift bag this year. At least nine of the House’s 39 top jobs will be empty when the session starts next year, from speaker pro tempore to head of the redistricting committee. More chairs are currently occupied by representatives who are dealing with hard re-election races, so they could well be empty, too.
When lawmakers meet at the onset of a session, the first thing they do is organize. In the House, they elect a speaker, who chooses the people to head various committees and fill out the rest of the assignments, weighing strengths and weaknesses, alliances and rivalries. Straus overthrew a sitting speaker in 2009 and survived a challenge in 2011. If he is re-elected, as expected, he'll have that goody bag on his back and with it, the power to reward some of his allies.
The Senate version is a little different, usually. Voters pick a lieutenant governor, then the Senate, by its rules, gives that person the power to name committees, decide what comes up for consideration and when, and so on. But with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst vying for a U.S. Senate seat, it could fall to the senators to pick their own presiding officer for the rest of Dewhurst’s term. The winner of that contest would populate the committees next year, deciding who gets to drive and who has to sit in the back seat.
And the goody bag is very interesting. A new lieutenant governor isn’t obligated to keep people where they are, which is creating deep anxiety. And even if the new boss leaves the assignments alone, departures have opened the trophy case. The middle chairs are empty on the finance, public education, economic development and jurisprudence committees.
In legislative terms, that’s real money.
It’s illegal, of course, to trade a thing of value for a vote for speaker or for lieutenant governor. You can’t promise this post or that appointment in return for someone’s support.
You can tell them how much you like them. How much you need their support. How they’re the kind of people you’d want by your side if you were fortunate enough to win. How their expertise in this or that would be beneficial and how awed you are at their leadership qualities. You just can’t say, “Hey, Marge. When I win, you’ll be the head of the Energy Committee.”
That particular law is sort of useful to a candidate. If there are four open committees and six people who would like to be on them, it prevents the candidate from promising the seats away; it allows the candidate to let all six potential supporters dream of their future sinecures, even though two of them aren’t going anywhere.
It’s not hard to work this out.
A challenger, of course, starts with a blank slate. The longer a speaker serves, the greater the danger that too many people feel shut out of the process. If you would like to be the chairman of something and the legislator currently in that job isn’t going anywhere — and hasn’t been going anywhere for six or eight years — you might be more willing to fire the current management and replace them with new people. The assumption being, of course, that you would be one of the new people.
It helps when redistricting or other changes increase the turnover rate. This year, 30 of the 150 Texas House members are leaving voluntarily — not seeking re-election for one reason or another. Not everyone who wants to come back will win. That new blood comes at the expense of experience, but it also keeps plum assignments in motion. Everybody in a Legislature wants to believe there’s a chance of a high position, even if it’s not available right this minute.
If senators choose a new lieutenant governor, they'll base their picks, in large part, on what they think the new officeholder will do with the committees.
Everybody wants to be Santa. Or Santa’s favorite.