WASHINGTON – When the next Congress begins tomorrow, the House will flip from Republican to Democratic control for the first time in eight years. For most of the Texans in Congress, it is likely to be a jarring transition.
“I know nothing but having a Republican from the White House all the way across the board,” said U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Lubbock Republican finishing up his first term. “This’ll be a great test of all of us, but especially my leadership – can I continue to be productive?”
Arrington is among eight Republican incumbents from Texas in the U.S. House who have only served in the majority and have no first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the chamber before Republicans won control in the 2010 wave. Of the 17 other Texas Republicans in the U.S House who have previously served in the minority, seven are leaving Congress after today due to retirements or lost re-elections.
It's a similar situation for Democrats, who are welcoming four new members. Of the nine returning Texas Democrats, five have been around long enough to know what it was like to serve in the majority.
All told, most of the 36 U.S. House members representing Texas this year will be adjusting to the new power dynamic with no past experience to prepare them.
Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, who is retiring after entering Congress in 1987, has served in the majority and minority. Life in the minority, he said, is “a whole different world.”
House rules leave minority members with little means for pushing their agenda through. In the Senate, individual minority members have the power to delay or block legislation through “holds” or the filibuster. It is not the same case in the House.
“It’s a sobering experience,” Smith said. “Basically, you cast around 500 votes every Congress, and when you’re in the minority, you lose almost every single one of those. You’re on the losing side of almost every single one of those 500 votes.”
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, spent four years in the House majority from 2007-2011 and is one of the five returning Democratic incumbents with experience in the majority. She said that the four returning Democrats with no majority experience and four incoming Democrats should be aware of the weight of majority power.
“The majority brings burdens of responsibility, of leadership and governance,” said Jackson Lee, who has served since 1995. “They should do whatever they can do to contribute to the governing of this nation.”
And as four additional Democrats with zero congressional experience join the delegation ranks after victories in November, the senior members of the delegation will be in a role of mentorship.
“I look forward to doing that,” Jackson Lee said. “And not in a manner of condescending, but in a way of saying ‘here are the ins-and-outs,’ particularly in the legislative process. I want them to be successful and there are many ways that they can achieve legislative success even in their first year.”
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, who joined the House in 2013, is ready to no longer be in the opposition. He said senior members have told him the job is a lot better in the majority.
“Everybody says it’s a lot happier and better,” Castro said. “Of course we’ll have a chance to focus on the issues that our constituents care a great deal about and be able to pass legislation easier.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, who was elected when the GOP won the House back in 2010, is bracing for how significantly life is about to change for Texas Republicans.
“It will be really hard to continue with the legislative agenda that we’ve been so successful with,” the Bryan Republican said.
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, who entered Congress in 2013 and has only served in the majority said that he thinks that he can compromise with Democrats on issues while still “keep(ing) our core principles.”
“We want to be the majority of the minority,” Williams said. “What I mean by that is, we’re not gonna sit back...and play defense. There’s a lot of things we can move forward. I got friends on the other side.”
He added that “there’s opportunities out there to fix some things (and) if we just concentrate on ‘well, I’m gonna play defense and say no all the time,’ I think nothing’s gonna happen.”
To assert Democrats' newfound power to best benefit Texas constituents, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said the four new Democrats – Colin Allred, Veronica Escobar, Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia – need to focus on their first committee assignments.
“Those committee assignments are going to define your career here,” said Cuellar, who has served since 2005. “Hopefully we can get them on one of the committees that they want.”
For members of both parties, there's an awareness that the current balance of power won't be permanent. That represents opportunities for Republicans and warning signs for Democrats.
“Any time a new majority comes in, they think they’re going to change the world,” Cuellar said.
He stressed the importance of maintaining good relationships with other members of Congress, regardless of party.
“You don’t burn bridges because (today) you might disagree with somebody (and) tomorrow you might be working with them,” Cuellar said. “Just don’t burn bridges here. One of the most important things here in Congress is (to) keep your word...Especially in this partisan type of situation, you gotta keep your word.”
Gene Green, a Houston Democrat retiring after 26 years – just six of which were spent in the majority – warned Democrats not to get comfortable.
“Don’t get used to it,” Green said. “The American people can take away that majority like they did in ‘94 and again in 2010.”
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Tomball, who has experience in the majority and minority, said “the goal is to recapture the majority, no matter who’s in the minority.”
“A lot of it’s about messaging, communication," said McCaul, who has served since 2005. "You don’t have any authority. You have limited powers.”
In the meantime, retiring U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, a Republican who has served in Congress since 1985 and spent 20 years in the majority and 14 years in the minority, has a blunt message to members of his party who are about to learn for the first time what life is like in the minority.
“Suck it up,” Barton said. “It’s gonna be tough.”