Monday, February 28, 2011

New Blog Series: "Why Texas House Speakers Matter"

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. We argue that Texas House Speakers labor in obscurity but exercise a disproportionate share of influence over events not just in Austin but also in Washington, D.C.. In this passage we describe one of the most recent speakers, Tom Craddick, at his zenith.

The Rise of the Texas House Speaker

Both literally and metaphorically, Texas House speakers live at the center of the state’s political universe. This fact became self-evident by February 2005. That month, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick took up the entire cover of Texas Monthly magazine. The black and white image, dominated by Craddick’s lined face, his dark suit jacket lightened only by a Texas flag lapel pin, showed few shades of gray. The picture’s highly contrasting tones underscored the speaker’s fiercely held (critics would say inflexible) political convictions and his dominance over state politics.

The photograph bespoke authority and control, an impression confirmed by a single, superimposed word written large across Craddick’s narrow frame: Power. “This guy has tons of it,” declared Texas Monthly. The magazine, a mouthpiece of the Texas establishment, named Speaker Craddick as the most powerful man in the state. The article inside, which pointedly did not include Governor Rick Perry or Lt. Governor David Dewhurst on its list of most powerful Texans, confirmed a story almost 170 years in the making: the Speaker of the House has become the most important political player in Texas and one of the most important elected officials in the United States.

“Although the governor of Texas is elected statewide and is typically the most well-known public official in Texas, he or she can ill afford to ignore the Speaker of the Texas House,“ former Gov. Dolph Briscoe recalled. “A wise governor builds a close and friendly working relationship with the Speaker as soon as possible after the election.”

The speakership had become so powerful that Craddick almost single-handedly muscled through the Legislature the controversial redrawing of congressional district boundaries in 2003. The second Texas redistricting in two years, Craddick’s move inspired House Democrats to flee to Oklahoma to break a quorum. Later, Senate Democrats absconded to New Mexico for similar reasons. Redistricting that year aimed at making the already conservative Texas congressional delegation even more Republican.

Craddick accomplished this goal, but experienced mounting frustration in reforming school finance. Craddick’s refusal to accept a variety of new business taxes was most often cited as the reason the Legislature proved unable to approve a school finance plan through one special session of the 78th Legislature in 2004, and the regular session and two special sessions of the 79th Legislature in the summer of 2005. In both the case of redistricting and school finance, Tom Craddick was seen as the most important player, either as an initiator or killer of proposed laws. "In the past, whenever he has really needed them, he's been able to turn the screw and come up with 78 or 80 votes," retired longtime Republican senator Bill Ratliff said of the failure of the school finance bill. "The question is, was this a failure of leadership, or maybe he didn't care whether he had the votes or not." Craddick became a hero among GOP conservatives for redistricting. Because of his power, he now became the goat to some for the school finance fiasco.

Attributing such control over the lawmaking process to a Texas House speaker would have been unthinkable until the late twentieth century. As this book demonstrates, institutional changes in the Texas House and larger social changes in the state since World War II transformed the speakership from a rotating, largely honorary position charged mainly with presiding over House debates to an office in which individual speakers have wielded tremendous power and even control over state policy. This power extends beyond Texas, sending shockwaves across the nation. Part of the fallout from the redistricting battle in 2003 was that United States House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Texas clinched continued Republican domination of the U.S. House until a Democratic landslide in 2006.

In contrast to Craddick’s high profile tenure, most speakers have labored in relative obscurity. Governors and lieutenant governors must run highly visible and increasingly expensive statewide campaigns to win office. The speaker, however, comes to power after being elected only by the voters of a single legislative district and then winning selection by peers in the Texas House. Twelve sections of the Texas Constitution, excluding amendments, describe the qualifications, duties, and powers of governors and four sections outline the office of lieutenant governor. Yet the Constitution, in Article 3, Section 9, dispenses with the office of House speaker in only twenty-four words: "The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a speaker from its own members . . ."

Obscured in that simple, brisk phrase is the power of House speakers to shape the legislative agenda. In the past 160 years, House speakers have either stymied or clinched the passage of legislative priorities offered by governors and lieutenant governors. Speakers can move a bill to the front of the House calendar or send proposals into legislative oblivion. Some House speakers have set a tone of bipartisanship while others have ensured an atmosphere of rancor and suspicion. Yet most Texans could not identify a single one of the 74 men who have held the office. With so little specific guidance from the Texas Constitution, each speaker has shaped the office in his own image.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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