This has been a fairly demoralizing few weeks for even those with low expectations for state government. Events point to a significant way in which the polarization of Texas state government is making it more like its dread enemy, Congress.
In recent years across the political spectrum, in Texas and nationally, we’ve seen the time between the end of one election and the beginning of the next shorten—constant political agitation powered in part by the scrutiny brought by new media, and the increasing demand for ideological purity, have dissolved the distance between governing and campaigning.
The 84th Texas Legislature is best understood as one part of a never-ending, ouroboros-like primary. The 2014 election brought us statewide elected officials who don’t know how to stop campaigning: They’ve never been forced to do otherwise. That’s true up and down the statewide ticket, from Gov. Greg Abbott to Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, but it’s manifested itself particularly in the Legislature this year. As a result, and partially because of the role of a number of outside instigators, the political atmosphere around the Capitol this session has been less conducive to governing and more conducive to showmanship and brinksmanship.
Start with Abbott, who must rue the fact that the story of his Jade Helm 15 letter is now entering its third week, and seems to continue ricocheting around national and international media like a stray bullet. It is the most widely covered thing Abbott has done as governor, if not in his entire career as a public servant.
On one hand, some members of the media have made too much of Abbott’s letter. It has few, if any, practical negative consequences.
But the wording of the letter—and the failure of Abbott’s team to comprehend how it would read to outsiders—is small evidence that the governor’s office hasn’t fully adapted to governing. He amplified nutters when he easily could have ignored them. A major responsibility of the governor of any state, one would think, would be to avoid embarrassing his constituents. Are these mistakes because of inexperience, or because he fears a future primary challenge?
Whatever it is, there’s little room to credit him with good faith here: Abbott has a long history of these pontifications. He loves to position himself as the protector of the vulnerable and frightened. When international election observers came to the United States to observe the 2012 presidential election, he threatened them with arrest, cheering conservative groups and earning a similar kind of backlash as the Jade Helm letter. Three years later, he’s using the same playbook.
When it comes to governing, though, Abbott has been less sure of himself. He’s at least partially responsible for the logjam between the House and Senate, thanks to his failure to articulate his positions, a gap the lobby has been only too willing to fill. His failure to speak clearly isn’t about policy confusion—one assumes his team has a preference—but about an unwillingness to take political risks by alienating one chamber or another. But those moments are precisely what governing is about.
Then there’s Dan Patrick, Abbott’s 2014 classmate. One of his first acts with the gavel was to polarize the Senate by killing the two-thirds rule. No longer would Democrats have very much of a say in anything, a change they said would make the upper chamber more like D.C. Still, many of the biggest items on Patrick’s wish list are unattainable to him. Instead, Patrick has developed a novel style of governance, which one could describe as the Senate of Forms.
He pledged to deliver “next level” conservatism to the Lege, but his tenure as lite guv seems to have been consumed primarily by the promotion of bills and policies that are doomed to failure and were perhaps never really even intended to pass. Patrick spent the first two months of the session holding press conferences about his policy agenda, piling those on top of a mountain of promises he’d already made as a candidate, as if he were a newly elected president. It’s a strange way to run the Senate, one that seems tailored solely to help Patrick with his next primary.
Take the effort to repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows some of the state’s undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. This was one of the things that Patrick talked most about on the campaign trail: He vowed that its repeal would be one of his first, if not his first, acts. But it was dead from the very beginning of the session, mostly because of his fellow Republicans.
But the shadow puppetry Patrick requires to justify himself to his base demanded that his Senate allies drag the zombie bill through committee hearings. So state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) terrified an uncountable number of people with the prospect that they, their friends or family, could one day soon no longer afford college. They came to Austin in great numbers to pour their hearts out to the Senate. They couldn’t know the bill was dead, a weird ploy in a long-running conservative shadow war.
When Patrick’s voucher bill, which we know now was also essentially dead from the start, was heard in committee, Patrick came down himself to testify for it—and take a selfie. This is not, traditionally, how the second-most powerful man in the state exercises his influence. It was a show, designed to demonstrate that he cared. People who know how to use power do not normally need to show their hand in this way.
But Patrick’s most important contribution this session has been a tax plan and associated budget gimmicks that make no sense and have almost no value. His proposed tax package gives little to taxpayers and hurts the state. When Patrick next runs for office, few voters will remember the small and temporary tax break he won them. The only importance it holds is that if it passes, Patrick can say that he cut property taxes, and if others oppose him in doing so, he can say that they kept property taxes high.
In this, he’s fighting House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies. The campaign against Straus is one of the longest-running grudge matches in the state, and the lieutenant governor is its new champion. They don’t often talk about policy, and when they do, it doesn’t always go well. To be sure, Straus has found his own pugilists to return fire, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) chief among them. But if the two chambers fail to come to an agreement on important issues in the coming weeks, remember that it’s not about policy. It’s the campaign. And if they do come to an agreement, it will be an agreement shaped by dueling egos, not principle.
Finally, there are the legislators themselves. There’s been a general lack of communication between members of the two chambers all session. Budding primary challenges and attack sites began rolling on basically as soon as the Legislature convened. Pretty much everyone, no matter the party or chamber or faction, is unhappy with the way the session has gone so far. Some legislators and staffers say the feeling in the Lege is worse even than it was in 2011, when the Lege had to contend with an apocalyptic budget shortfall.
There could be no better symbol of the ways Austin’s political culture has deteriorated than the news that a sneak of weasels calling themselves the American Phoenix Foundation—conservative activists who at the very least, have a number of mutual friends with the consultants who back Senate right-wingers like Burton, Hall, and Huffines—have been going around the Texas Capitol making secret recordings of legislators as they go about their business.
They claim to have some 800 hours of recordings, excerpts of which Breitbart Texas says it will release after the session. They’ve been walking around the halls of the Capitol, and around Austin, with cameras, hoping to entrap legislators. They’ve harassed reporters. Once their cover was blown, they’ve taken to using their presence to intimidate capitol-goers, offering false bravado in verbal form. They seem to use fake names, and their website lists a fake address. They’re creeps.
It’s the ultimate manifestation of the permanent campaign. The recordings themselves, and the recorders themselves, are almost certainly less impressive than they let on. But even if they caught nothing important, their presence deteriorates relations and trust between legislators further.
The perception will be that one team—the team that the Senate’s right-wing is on—is spying on the other team. And as Ross Ramsey pointed out in the Texas Tribune, the decision to hold whatever the cameras caught until after the session will leave some legislators who might waver on key votes thinking, “What do they have on me?”
So with a few weeks to go in the session, we find ourselves with game-playing leaders, a carnival sideshow in the halls and unhappy legislators who, by and large, trust each other about as far as you can see in The Cloak Room. It’s possible that by Abbott and Patrick’s second session in 2017, all involved will have gained a little maturity and wisdom. But then, we’ll be even closer to the next statewide primary. It’s not an especially promising recipe for the future.