Analysis: Speaker Straus breaking a trend seen with his predecessors
House Speaker Joe Straus won a fifth term in that post on the first day of the legislative session. And unlike his predecessors, he's more secure politically now than when he started in 2009.
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Joe Straus ought to be sweating right now. Elected on Tuesday to a fifth term as speaker of the Texas House, he ties the record set by Democrats Gib Lewis of Fort Worth and Pete Laney of Hale Center.
Lewis, beset by ethics scandals, didn’t seek another term. Laney, who succeeded him, fell when Republicans won their first majority in the House since Reconstruction.
Both of them, like many of their predecessors, gradually lost support as they accumulated tenure. Ambitious members — supporters, even — wanted a crack at the top job. Others got tired of waiting for committee chairmanships they thought they deserved.
Straus is safer, politically speaking, than he ever has been.
His first election as speaker, in 2009, unseated Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican unpopular with most Democrats and with just enough Republicans to make a majority.
Straus had opponents — declared challengers who tried to muster votes — in 2011, 2013 and 2015. Only that last one came to a vote, and that vote — only 19 members opposed Straus — proved to everyone inside and outside the state Capitol how small the opposition really was.
This time, nobody even tried to knock him off.
No speaker — not a smart one, anyhow — announces at the beginning of a term that it will be the last term. The minute that information hits the ground, the incumbent is a lame duck, and the race to succeed him (it’s always been a him, so far) is underway.
Lewis’ lieutenants were semi-secretly running for his job early in his fifth term, while the Legislature was still in session in 1991.
Laney’s term was effectively ended by voters, who installed a Republican majority that didn’t want a Democratic speaker. He was sitting on a time bomb of sorts even without the party shift: Turnover in the House, particularly among the powerful members of his leadership team, was low. Members waiting for good positions were stymied by the lack of open seats. Laney had a fair number of Republicans in his camp, even after the 2002 elections, but they were offset by the so-called Craddick Ds — Democrats who had decided they might get a better deal out of a new Republican speaker than from their old ally.
Leadership changes are borne of complaint — of the kind of friction that comes from factional differences, from scandal, from thwarted ambitions and from the figurative cuts and bruises inevitable in legislative debate and deal-making.
The speaker can seem anodyne or even boring, but it beats controversy when it comes to job security. At a point when speakers are generally wearing out their welcomes, Straus faces less opposition than ever before.
He has avoided scandal. His Republican Party is firmly in control of both the state government and, more importantly, of the House itself. Turnover among his lieutenants has been low enough to keep things stable and high enough to allow him to bring new people into the fold. His opposition, almost all of it coming from the most conservative waters in the GOP pool, is noisy but small: In that 2015 contest against state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, the challenger got only 19 votes.
He has quietly become a legislative counterbalance, and the House and Senate have switched traditional institutional roles. The normal formula is that the House is the place for hot passions and the Senate is where things cool off and get more careful consideration. In Texas, it’s now the Senate that chases flashy political issues and the House that slows things down.
One is the eye of the hurricane, the other the storm.
That reflects the leaders of the two chambers. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won as the most conservative candidate in a 2014 Republican primary at a time when that was tantamount to winning a general election in this reliably red state. The people electing Straus — the members of the House — are more politically diverse than GOP primary voters, and ideology is lower on their list of leadership qualities.
They seem to like the lack of drama. On Tuesday, they picked Straus again, without controversy or a lot of talk about who might follow him in the top seat. One, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, seconded Straus’ nomination. He was one of the 19 who voted against the speaker two years ago. Although some have grumbled about the speaker’s leadership, they voted to support him for a fifth term on Tuesday.
Straus is not saying or hinting that this will be his last term. Even if it is, this would be the wrong time for him to say so.
And you never know what’s going to happen in politics. Maybe Straus will seek a sixth term in 2019, and set the record for Texas speakers.
More columns from Ross Ramsey:
- The so-called "bathroom bill" unveiled by Republican leaders last week is the latest piece of legislation that would overwrite local laws with state regulations cooked up in Austin.
- The Legislature goes to Austin on Tuesday, but lawmakers will find out a day before that what kind of budget they're going to write. Spoiler alert: Money is tight.
- The judges overseeing litigation on Texas redistricting haven't done anything public for two years. The lawyers who sued the state over its political maps are trying to get the judges to chirp or get off the perch.
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