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Analysis: The tyranny of the minority

Republican state lawmakers could decide who'll be speaker of the Texas House in January 2019 themselves — and then stick together when it goes to a vote in the full House of Representatives. That would be a significant change.

House Speaker Joe Straus keeps watch on the chamber during debate on Senate Bill 6 on municipal annexation on Aug. 11, 2017. 

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Is it really a good idea to make a majority of a minority, as some Republicans hope to do in the Texas House of Representatives?

A proposal to have the GOP caucus vote as a bloc in the next speaker’s race could do just that, putting a vocal minority of Republicans in charge, and making the Texas House a lot more like the U.S. Congress — where some decisions that used to be made by all the members of the House are made only by the members of the party in power.

The Republican Caucus met Wednesday morning to talk about the next vote on a speaker of the House in January 2019 — and whether the members of the caucus should pick a candidate and then stand in unison behind their pick when the speaker vote goes to the full House.

It’s not a direct shot at House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio — in fact, he went to the meeting, walked out with a smile on his face and went on being speaker. But it’s not exactly a show of support, either. If Straus seeks re-election, he’d be playing to a different electorate next time — the Republican Caucus instead of the full House.

It takes 76 votes to win the speaker’s race — a majority of the House. But a candidate needs only 48 votes to win in the 95-member Republican Caucus. A rule binding all Republicans to the will of the caucus would effectively put those 48 Republican voters in charge of the whole election.

It would be a significant shift of power, too. The most powerful group in the House is the establishment Republicans, because they can almost always find a majority by joining with the social conservatives on their right or with the moderate Democrats to their left. Those two factions rarely find themselves on the same side, making the establishment Republicans the dealmakers in the House.

Changing the rules, however, could put someone other than an establishment Republican like Straus in the speaker’s chair. Whichever GOP faction controls, the next speaker could be “representing” a House where 102 members — the rest of the Republicans and the 55 Democrats — wanted someone else in the top spot.

That seems contrary to the name of the institution. If you’re comparison-shopping, it's a move that would make the state House more like the federal House, which already relies on parties to choose their leaders. The Democrats, in particular, would have no investment in the political leadership of the House if the leader was chosen by a Republican bloc: That’s a recipe for stalemates.

This caucus idea is in the platform of the Texas GOP, and it’s easy to understand the frustration of a GOP that fought its way into the majority in the Texas Legislature (the Republicans have had the majority in the Senate since 1997, in the House since 2003) only to find that divisions within the party have kept the Democrats and coalition politics alive in the state.

The Republicans have already edged the Democrats out of some of the clout they retained even after becoming the minority party. Straus was first elected speaker in 2009, when the balance of power was 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats. House lawmakers weren’t going to elect a Democrat to the top job, but they weren’t going to elect a fire-breathing conservative, either.

The Senate Democrats clung to some of their power under a minority-empowering rule that allowed one-third of the Senate to block consideration of legislation. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others argued that a Republican state shouldn’t have Democrats dictating policy and finally convinced the Senate to change the rule. It moved that power away from the minority — on any given bill, that could be a partisan minority, a geographic minority, whatever — and to the presiding officer, who sets the agenda for the Senate.

The Democrats in the Senate haven’t been as powerful since the rule changed. (Neither have the Republicans, but they lost less power than the Democrats did.)

A rule binding all House Republicans to the will of the caucus would effectively put 48 Republican voters in charge of the election of the next speaker.

Since his first election, Straus has faced a small but vocal faction inside and outside the House that thinks he’s mushy on social conservative issues — like the “bathroom bill” that shadowed the 85th Legislature and failed, largely because the speaker risked stopping it. Straus said repeatedly that that legislation would be bad for business, economic development and the state itself. And he won, treating the bill’s sponsors to a fresh defeat in the special session.

That sort of victory is sweet to his supporters, Republicans and Democrats alike. But it’s bitter to the losers, a group of social conservatives who’d like to have someone whose politics align more with Patrick and the Senate, where their wing of the party is in control.

The House, with 55 Democrats, sits in a different place on the political spectrum than the Senate. The establishment wing of the GOP is stronger in the lower chamber, too. It’s impossible to say with reasonable accuracy how the factions line up in the House itself — where Straus was elected unanimously to a fifth term just eight months ago — or in the Republican Caucus, which hasn’t yet voted on the united front proposal.

Power has nearly as much to do with this situation as politics. The House gets restive when someone has been a speaker for a decade. Nobody, so far, has lasted longer than five terms. Even friends of the incumbent — whether that’s Gib Lewis, Pete Laney or Straus, the members of that five-term club — get a little itchy, wondering if they might be next in line and worrying that their time might be passing by.

Each of those five-termers held the job by hanging onto a bloc of 76-plus votes that wasn’t controlled by the most partisan members of either political party. It might be possible for a crackpot to win the job, but they have to have 76 votes in the current setup — a far steeper climb than 48.

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