Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Who Cares if there's a New Speaker of the Texas House?

Back after reconstruction, when Texans were spitting mad at the radical Republicans for taking over their government, as soon as the Democrats had the chance they held a constitutional convention.  The participants wanted to weaken the government as much as possible.  So they split the Governor's powers across five different offices, gave the power of choosing just about all judges to the people through election, and made the legislative session so short it would be hard to pass many bills.  But there are two offices that still remain very powerful because of their power over the two presiding legislative bodies, the Lt. Governor, who presides over the Senate, and the Speaker of the House.

The Speaker of the House is one of the most powerful offices in Texas and it is the only one not directly chosen by the People.   The Speaker is chosen by his/her fellow legislators.

So why is the Speaker So Powerful??
The Speaker of the house chooses all of the committee chairmen for the various house committees.  These committees decide whether, and in what form, a bill makes it to the House floor or whether it dies in committee.  Because the Speaker chooses these chairmen he usually has a fair amount of control over them and can, in some cases, dictate what bills he wants to see on the floor.  Also, if a contentious bill makes it to the floor anyway, the Speaker can decide not to recognize legislators who want to debate the bill, or not even allow it to come up for a vote. 
The current Speaker is Joe Strauss R-San Antonio.  Joe Strauss has only been speaker for one session when he wrested the position from the autocratic Tom Craddick R-Midland.  According to Fred Hill R-Dallas
under Tom Craddick, the system was set up to do what Tom Craddick wanted to do, and he
exercised his power to pass legislation that he was in favor of. If he wasn’t in favor of it, he would kill it.
 Of course Democrats wanted to be rid of Craddick, but there were also Republicans who chafed under his rule, some even contending that he was abusing his power.
... the fight was about Craddick having consolidated power with lobbyists and having used campaign contributions to maintain control in the House: "This is about the convergence of money and power and influence," Cook [R-Corsicana] said.
Tom Craddick at first was able to maintain control by not recognizing Republicans who wanted to oust him.
House Speaker Tom Craddick shut down repeated efforts by House members to remove him from his post during a dramatic midnight coup attempt Friday, refusing to recognize them for a procedural move that would set off a vote to oust him.

In an extraordinary late-night exchange before a packed House gallery, with most House members seated quietly at their desk, Fred Hill, R-Richardson, asked that the chamber be allowed to vote on Mr. Craddick's fate.

It was the climax of discontent that had been building for weeks – but Mr. Craddick, R-Midland, stymied it with carefully worded parliamentary rulings.

"The speaker's power of recognition on any matter can not be appealed," he said.
Craddick managed to maintain his position until the 2009 legislative session when Democrats came close to splitting the chamber with the Republicans (74 Ds to 76 Rs), in part due to voter unhappiness with Craddick.

Now that the Republicans have a strong majority in the House once again, Joe Strauss is in trouble because he won the Speaker position partly due to overwhelming support by the Democrats.  Part of the deal Strauss made with Democrats for their support was the handing out of some committee chairmanships to Dems. But at the time the Republican majority was only by 2 members.  Now that the Republicans have almost a Super Majority in the House, it stands to reason that the chairmanships should change hands, even under Strauss. 

Many Conservatives say Strauss is a Democrat in Republican clothing.  Some Republicans claim Strauss supported Democratic Candidates and that he is Pro-Choice.  But as with most campaign rhetoric, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.  According to the Texas Ethics Commission, campaign contributions made by Strauss were to fellow Republicans.
Campaign finance reports from January 1 through Election Day show the names Joe Straus, Joe R Straus, Speaker Joe Straus, Joe R Straus III, Joe Strauss, and Joe R. Strauss gave $716,550 to Republican candidates and political groups.
Straus defended his efforts as “completely legal,” helping to “bring about the largest gains in the history of our party.”

It is considered part of the House speaker’s job to support the House members, in both their efforts to effectively represent their districts and in their efforts to be re-elected. It is considered bad form for a speaker to actively campaign against incumbents, even if they are in the opposing party.

In fact, former Speaker Tom Craddick , R-Midland, Straus’ direct predecessor, raised more than $2.5 million in campaign contributions in the election years during his three terms in the post. Some of Craddick’s contributions were through his speaker PAC, Stars Over Texas, which was formed to support House Republicans in their election bids.
Strauss may have raised money for his fellow Republican supporters, but he didn't raise money for any Democrats.

It is hard to say what Strauss' position is on Abortion, because he didn't vote at all on any of the recent Pro-Life legislation (2005, 2007,2009). Joe Strauss isn't even on the NARAL Abortion Issues list.  Neither did he try to obstruct votes on Pro-Life bills.  Votes for 3 Pro-Life bills were held in the House during his tenure.  If he is guilty of anything, it is by being Neutral in this contentious issue.

Two very conservative Republicans are challenging Strauss for the Speaker position, Warren Chisum R-Pampa and Ken Paxton R-McKinney.  They feel the strong Tea Party showing in Texas has given them the mandate to challenge Strauss.  Strauss is an establishment Republican, and as we all know by the recent election, the Tea Party hates the establishment. 

But, no matter who the Speaker of the House is, he will have to deal with a budget shortfall some are estimating at as high as $25 billion, not a job I would want to have!

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