WASHINGTON — Since the days former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn ruled the U.S. Capitol in the 1940s and 1950s, Texas dominance of the nation’s capital has been a given.
Over a couple of generations, the state has sent a bipartisan roster of big hitters to D.C., including presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; U.S. Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison; U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright; U.S. House Majority Leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay; U.S. Reps. Bill Archer and Martin Frost; Secretary of State James Baker III; Commerce Secretary Don Evans; Education Secretary Margaret Spellings; and Bush White House advisers Karen Hughes, Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett.
Texas is still in the thicks of things today, with seven chairmen running U.S. House committees — more than from any other state — and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn serving as the Senate majority whip, the upper chamber’s No. 2 Republican post. But Lone Star clout and the benefits it generates back home look to be on the decline in the coming years.
Thanks to a lack of strong state ties to Republican Donald Trump’s campaign and a weak bench on the Democratic side, it’s unlikely Texas talent will flood the executive branch in 2017 — no matter if Trump or Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November. Thanks to term limits for committee chairs, Texas power in Congress will soon be diminishing as well.
“Texans might have to wander for 40 years in the wilderness before we have substantive leadership in Washington again,” says Jenifer Sarver, who worked in George W. Bush’s Department of Commerce and now lives in Austin.
It matters, Sarver says, because of how directly the spending of the federal government affects the state — and the problems that could emerge with a lack of high-level federal advocates. “It could have a direct correlation on things like appropriations, on base closures, and getting facilities like NASA, and other things that are directly related to job and opportunities for Texas.”
Former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat who represented Arlington, said a future without visible leadership could not even be offset by the large size of the Texas congressional delegation.
“Nothing replaces having people in top leadership whether it’s a committee chair or elected leadership,” he said. “The size of the delegation is not as important as having people in key leadership positions or people heading committees.”
Sarver, who has also been a senior adviser to Hutchison, remembers well the peak of Texas power in Washington: the early 2000s, when Bush was president, DeLay — a Republican congressman from Sugar Land and a former state legislator — was House majority leader, and an entire generation of Texans GOP staffers overwhelmed the city.
“It was an exciting time to be a Texan in Washington, D.C.,” says Sarver, “because there were bright, substantive, interesting, hardworking Texans everywhere you turned — on the Hill, in the administration, in the media, in the private sector.”
“Over the last decade, there’s always been four license plates in D.C.: Virginia, D.C., Maryland, and Texas,” jokes Republican consultant Luke Marchant, the son of U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant of Coppell.
But those license plates headed home once Bush left office. Texans were scarcely seen in the upper reaches of the Obama administration, though the president did appoint Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.
Looking ahead to the next presidency, prospects could be similarly slim.
No fewer than four presidential GOP candidates had substantial ties to Texas — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. There are were also Texans high up in the org charts of the John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson campaigns. The Texas political class found itself pulled in all of those directions but not Trump’s. Hardly anyone in the state boarded the Trump train before it left the station.
Still, should Trump win, the most obvious possible Texas official in his administration is Perry, who flipped 180 degrees on Trump over the course of the race. Less than a year ago he called the New York real estate developer a “cancer on conservatism.” This week, he joined Trump on a fundraising swing through Texas and was lauded by the nominee for his popularity within the state.
Perry could fill several roles — homeland security secretary, agriculture secretary —but Texas GOP sources think his likeliest destination is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Other Texans with Trump administration possibilities, GOP sources say, include U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, currently the House Homeland Security chairman. Trump selected McCaul as a speaker at the Republican National Convention and could appoint him to a national security post.
The Texans in Hillaryland and at the Capitol
On the Democratic side, the Texans most frequently mentioned as a possible addition to the Clinton team is Cecile Richards, the daughter of late Texas Gov. Ann Richards. But for any post requiring approval by the U.S. Senate, the controversial longtime CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America could expect a brutal confirmation process.
Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, the party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee, has been a fixture on the campaign trail, pitching Clinton’s case to young women. She is also a logical choice, per Democratic sources, to serve in the departments of justice or health and human services. She has not ruled out a move, but she has insisted her focus is on getting Clinton, not herself, to Washington.
Some Democratic sources suggest that Castro might stick around for a term in a Clinton administration, either in his current role or a new one.
Further down the food chain, the Clinton campaign hosts a roster of up-and-coming party operatives from Texas: Lily Adams, Cecile Richards' daughter, who has been a campaign communications aide; Xochitl Hinojosa, the daughter of state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who has also worked in the Clinton communications department; and Carlos Sanchez, a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who has been a deputy political director. The betting money is they will be in consideration for high-profile administration staffing roles.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there’s no denying that Texas Republicans made the most of the Obama years. So many Texans took possession of committee gavels in the House of Representatives that when U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, ran for Ways and Means chairman in late 2015, his biggest drawback among colleagues was “Texas fatigue.”
But the gavel give-back will soon begin. Republicans have a six-year term-limit rule for chairmen. Even if the Republicans retain control of the U.S. House, Texans will begin to leave their roles as committee chairs starting in 2018.
McCaul, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, will reach their term limits in early 2019.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Midland, and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, reach their term limits in 2020. Brady’s end date is unclear, because he assumed the gavel in the middle of a term. He will wrap up in either early 2021 or 2023.
House Republicans could create waivers to these limits, but a drop in chairmanships for Texans is all but assured.
An exception to the term limits is the House Rules Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. The House speaker chooses the House Rules chairman, and the position is not subject to term limits.
Meanwhile, no Texans currently serve in House leadership, and there are no assured paths for any of the 25 Texas House Republicans to ascend in the coming years. Sessions flirted with a run for House majority whip during the upheaval of former Speaker John Boehner’s retirement last fall, but the whip vacancy never materialized.
Rays of Light
Despite the power outage, there are a few rays of light for Texans.
Cornyn is is not expected to leave his Senate leadership post any time soon and could possibly be the state's first Senate majority leader since Johnson.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, has a plausible — but not certain — path to lead the House Appropriations Committee in the coming years. U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, leads the Republican Study Committee, but he also has promised to term-limit himself and depart Congress in the not-too-distant future.
Should Cruz win re-election in 2018, he is expected to run for the presidency again. If he wins the White House, he would bring a whole new generation of Texans into the executive branch. But if he comes up short again and stays in the Senate, his combative relationship with his colleagues could complicate any efforts to leverage seniority into a powerful Senate post.
Finally, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, is running this fall to lead the House Republicans’ political arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. But it’s a tough contest, and there are no assurances he will win.
Texas will always be a force in Washington, if only because of its sheer size. The 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats who currently represent the state in the House can, when unified, form formidable voting blocs.
Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:
- While fundraising through Texas, Donald Trump praised former Gov. Rick Perry as a potential challenger to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
- Hope as they might, Democrats don’t see Trump losing Texas.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the chairman of the House Rules Committee is subject to term limits.