By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“Traditionally, the minority party has been given the presidency of some Texas House committees. Some in the GOP want to end this.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates — and collaborates with — Texans on public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter keeping readers up-to-date with the most important news from Texas.
As the 2023 legislative session nears, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan is under pressure from a small but vocal group of Republicans who want to ban Democratic committee chairs, a long-standing tradition that has allowed the minority party a seat at the table, though she wasn’t doing energy.
Conservative agitators are unlikely to prevail as Phelan – who is expected to be re-elected as Speaker of the House – has publicly defended the practice. But they believe their ranks have grown since the last session and are harder to let go at this point.
“Our Republican constituents expect us to get this done, and I’m confident that those who refuse to listen to their constituents will have to deal with the consequences,” said Royse City freshman Rep. Bryan Slaton , who is the most vocal opponent of Chairs of Democratic Committees. “Republicans will not be satisfied on this issue until Democrats have committee chairs in the Texas legislature.”
However, Phelan said in September that if re-elected as speaker of the House of Representatives for the next session, he would appoint an equal share of Democratic committee chairs. Phelan appointed 13 Democratic committee chairs from 34 standing committees at the start of the last session.
In a statement on the story, the spokesman’s office only promised to have an open debate about the rules.
“One of the first tasks in the House will be to adopt rules that will govern the Chamber for the session, and each member will have a voice both in that process and in the broader legislative debate that will play out as the session progresses those 140 days,” Phelan spokeswoman Cassi Pollock said.
The applicable house rules say nothing about the partisanship of the committee chairmen. But the rules could be changed to say such positions should only go to the majority party, as Slaton suggested last year in an amendment that got just five votes.
House Speakers have long appointed committee chairs from both parties, believing it encourages compromise and avoids the kind of deadlock that has gripped Congress. But Republican critics say conservative priorities are always crippled when Democrats are given a say in legislation.
Republican supporters of the status quo argue that this hasn’t stopped conservatives from achieving long-sought political gains over the past year, including a near-total ban on abortion and the illicit carrying of handguns.
“I look at what we passed last session and what Republican priorities are in the next cycle, and I ask which Democratic chair got in the way of a Republican priority in the 87th [Legislature]? And the answer is there isn’t,” Phelan said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September.
Opponents of the practice dispute that notice That legislation died in Democrat-led committees that would have dealt with conservative priorities such as school choice or providing educational options beyond traditional public schools.
Phelan’s predecessor, Dennis Bonnen, appointed 12 Democratic committee chairs when he was speaker in the 2019 legislative session, similar to the proportion Phelan selected. That year, Bonnen faced internal criticism for putting Democrats in charge of two committees traditionally hearing gun-related bills and angering Second Amendment activists who had pushed for the licence-taking of handguns. Fed up with the committee’s lack of a hearing on the proposal, one of the activists visited Bonnen’s Lake Jackson home to lobby, infuriating the speaker and sealing the bill’s doom. The Legislature passed the next session under Phelan without authorization.
The question of committee chairs has become one of the loudest debates as Phelan tries to agree on a second term as speaker. He faces a challenger for the gavel, Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, whose main issue is banning Democratic committee chairs. Tinderholt is considered a long shot, and the House Republican caucus is expected to back Phelan for another term as speaker at a meeting Saturday in Austin.
But opponents of Democratic committee chairs are watching to see if their crusade pays off beyond a new speaker or rule change. Phelan could still appoint fewer Democratic committee chairs than usual. Or he could appoint them to less powerful committees. He could also forward fewer Conservative-priority bills to Democratic-led committees.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans enjoy leadership positions on the most coveted and powerful committees, such as those that control spending and taxes. Democrats head some of the less prominent committees, such as the Juvenile Justice and Family Affairs Committee and the Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee.
One exception is Houston Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who chairs the Public Education Committee and in the most recent session oversaw high-profile legislative battles including a proposal to ban so-called critical race theory in schools and a bill to enforce restrictions on transgender student athlete .
Whether Dutton retains his title in the upcoming session remains to be seen, as Republicans have made “parental rights” in schools their top priority.
Advocates of school vouchers, which fund children’s schooling beyond traditional public schools, are also preparing for a renewed push in this session, with more support than ever from Gov. Greg Abbott, but Dutton is a Democrat who opposes vouchers.
“The Texas House tradition of having bipartisan committee chairs goes back decades and has been a constant among both Democratic and Republican speakers,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus and chair of the House Business and Industry Committee. “Texas is well served with this practice.”
At least 20 new or returning members have called for the committee presidency to be at least partially restricted to the majority party. These include members who backed two unsuccessful rule changes in the past year, as well as members who have promised during their recent campaigns to oppose chairmen of Democratic committees.
That’s a far cry from the majority needed to actually change the rules in this session. But it suggests the appetite for a ban on Democratic committee chairs has been growing since the last regular session began.
At this point, Slaton’s amendment received five votes, plus three more that were later entered in the journal. Seventeen members supported a second unsuccessful amendment that would have banned minority party leaders from only 11 of the more prominent committees.
Opponents of Democratic committee chairs worked hard to make the March primary a referendum on the issue, and fielded challengers who tried to defend the incumbents over the status quo. Her arguments took on new relevance with the rupture of the Democratic College in the summer of 2021, which was attended by some of the party’s committee chairs.
They were also given a boost by a non-binding Republican primary proposal that asked voters about ending the presidency of Democratic committees. It was accepted with 81% of the votes.
Still, Phelan’s team fended off all challengers, and few incumbents changed positions when attacked for facilitating liberal politics by allowing Democrats to chair committees. But in open seats, several candidates who expressed support for banning Democratic committee chairs prevailed.
Among them are candidates whom Phelan’s campaign has nonetheless supported, such as incoming freshmen Caroline Harris in the Austin area and Ben Bumgarner in north Texas.
It remains to be seen how many new members will redeem their campaign rhetoric against the chairs of Democratic committees. One of them, North Texas Assemblyman-elect Richard Hayes, said Tuesday his opposition to the practice hasn’t changed.
“If you look at party platforms, we have very different beliefs on a lot of areas,” Hayes said in an interview. “So you want to build a team that can achieve the stated goals of our party. And if you have people who have completely different beliefs, that’s not going to happen.”
Another group to watch is the 12-member Freedom Caucus, which backed the main proposal against Democratic committee chairs. But the group, which has eight returning members, has been quieter on the issue of late and did not respond to a request for comment.
Among the most vocal supporters of banning Democratic committee chairs is the state’s Republican Party, whose chairman Matt Rinaldi is a former member of the House of Representatives. Ending the practice is one of the party’s eight legislative priorities for the upcoming session.
Democrats also chair Senate committees, but Lt. gov. Dan Patrick has kept the stake low. Currently, only one Senate Democrat — Senator John Whitmire — chairs a committee, and he is running for Houston mayor in the November 2023 election. Whitmire is the Dean of the Senate – its longest-serving member – and he has chaired the Criminal Justice Committee since 1993.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/01/texas-republicans-committee-chair-house/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom that educates and engages Texans in state politics and politics. Learn more at texastribune.org.