WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Democrat from Illinois sits in the White House. Republicans from Wisconsin and Kentucky run the U.S. House and Senate. Yet Texans have achieved a modern high in power on Capitol Hill, landing no fewer than seven House committee chairmanships, ranging from national security to financial policy to agricultural issues.
And yet, all that power is on a set of timers, each one counting down to zero.
"The good news is we have a lot of committee chairmen from Texas,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The bad news is that once they’ve served their six years, if we stay in the majority, then they will rotate.”
Unlike Democrats, House Republicans ensure that chairmen of the House committees must give up their posts after three terms, or six years. The GOP put in place term limits on committee chairs as part of the "Republican Revolution" reforms installed after the party won the House in 1994. Of the seven House chairmanships Texans currently hold, almost all are scheduled to hand over their gavels sometime in the next five years.
Many of the current 36-member delegation have served in the House well over a decade, coming to Congress in the 1990s or after a controversial statewide redistricting of congressional districts in 2003 unseated several incumbents. Over the last few decades, they've gained seniority and built relationships.
The state is reaping the benefit with outsized power on Capitol Hill, with Texans in the trenches of shepherding major legislation on a whole host of issues.
For instance, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, has been at the forefront of the battle over the controversial Export-Import Bank, a government agency that uses loan guarantees and other financial instruments to help U.S. businesses sell goods overseas. The bank is supported by the GOP's business establishment but hotly opposed on the right as government interference with the free market. Over the past year, Hensarling emerged as the bank's most high-profile opponent in the House and, in his committee, blocked several bills aimed at reviving the bank. Such a measure eventually passed the House in October over Hensarling's strong opposition.
"By voting for Ex-Im, Democrats are throwing Wall Street a big, wet kiss," Hensarling said after the House vote.
Texas House chairmen also wield power in other areas, with Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Austin and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Clarendon having frequent television presences on national security issues. And Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Midland is poised to be at the center of negotiations over $1 trillion in farm subsidies when the bill comes up for reauthorization at the end of the decade.
Yet assuming Republicans maintain their hold on the House, 2019 will bring to an end the chairmanships of Hensarling, McCaul, and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Austin, who currently chairs the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Conaway and Thornberry only earned their gavels last year, meaning they may have the longest tenure ahead of them, lasting through early 2021.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady became chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee last fall, in the middle of the Congressional term. Several Capitol Hill Republican staffers pointed out that that unusual timing could earn Brady a waiver, extending his term by two years beyond the current 2021 expiration date.
The one exception to the House GOP's term-limit rule is U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas, who serves as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee. That chairman serves at the discretion of the speaker and does not face term limits.
Otherwise, all the other Texans will phase out, and there is some consternation that the state will be in a legislative lurch.
“It’s an open question because we’ve had such a long run of leadership positions that it remains to be seen,” said longtime delegation fixture Bill Christian, a Republican former Capitol Hill staffer who currently works at a nonprofit organization called Citizens Against Government Waste.
Christian argued that Texas has punched above its weight with leadership positions in the past. In the 2000s, as the older guard cycled out, the George W. Bush administration was loaded with Texas staffers to offset the lost power.
“Whether by circumstance or by design, these trends to appear to be cyclical,” Christian added.
Christian says there are signs of emerging power elsewhere on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is the second-ranking Republican in that chamber, and his fellow Texas Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, is one of the longest-lasting presidential candidates this election season.
In interviews with the Tribune, Barton and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, both said the delegation is always plotting over the long term how to keep members in positions of leadership on the Hill.
“If you talk about the Texas delegation, we’re sort of at an all-time high when it comes to chairmanships, and they’re really important chairmanships,” Granger said. “We’re careful about the people that come in ... as they come in as freshmen to say, ‘What are you interested in, and where are you trying to go?’”
“So, the Texans try not to walk over each other’s agenda,” she added.
Barton can game out a scenario for almost every Texas Republican to earn a future chairmanship, including himself. He pointed to Smith as the point man on strategizing long-term Congressional power.
"The good news is we’ve still got a lot of young members coming up,” he added.
A group called the House Republican Steering Committee recommends committee chairs ahead of each congressional term. The chamber's Republican caucus rarely overrides the steering committee's recommendations.
And while Texas will be losing some powerful chairmanships, several senior members of the delegation often come up in discussions of who may fill key chairmanships in the future.
Among them, Granger could take the reins of the most important committee of all: Appropriations.
While not the powerhouse it once was, members on Appropriations decide how to allocate federal spending. Granger, who is currently chair of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, has spent years building up seniority on the committee, is a former member of the House leadership and is one of the most respected members of her caucus.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, is also mentioned as a contender to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a key prospect for the Texas oil and natural gas economy.
McCaul, the Homeland Security chairman, could take the reins of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Smith could succeed him at the Homeland Security Committee. They would continue a tradition of chairmen shifting from committee to committee after being term-limited.
But no committee gavel will come easily. There is a sense of "Texas fatigue" in Republican circles and stiff competition from other states for all of these positions.
Yet Granger, Burgess and all of the current chairmen share one common trait: They raise large amounts of money for their colleagues' re-election bids.
It’s a point that Christian, the former Hill staffer, noted.
“As long as Republicans are going to be in the majority, Texans are going to enjoy power for for no other reason than so many national Republicans look to Texas as their go-to ATM machine,” he said.
To be sure, all these assumptions are based on the notion that Republicans retain control of the House. As billionaire Donald Trump and Cruz — both polarizing figures — compete for the GOP presidential nomination, there is an increasing belief among operatives in both parties that Democrats might have a serious chance to capture the 30 seats they need to win back a majority in the chamber.
If that came to pass, Hill sources named U.S. Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both of Houston, and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas as possibly ascendant in committee power. Johnson is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. The other two Democrats are not ranking members but are long-serving members of a caucus that puts heavy weight on seniority when choosing chairs.
But unlike Republicans, House Democrats do not have term limits on chairmanships, leading to less churn and a longer wait for an opening.