Games people played By Gary Keith Austin The future of American politics may rest with Texas. Consider the population shift our way and the national focus on Texas oil: the state’s influence in Washington should boom. Unfortunately, Texas politics aren’t worth national acclaim. We don’t have a fulltime professional legislature, and unless there’s a drastic change, the parttime government we do have won’t offer Texas, much less the rest of the country, progressive leadership. Everyone dreads the opening of another session of the Texas Legislature, and with reason. The 65th made some of the worst laws imaginable, while killing many good proposals. “Morality” billsantiprostitution, anti-gay, antipornographyand lawand-order and highway legislation passed easily. But we have no school finance or property tax reform, and little increase in social services. Why? It isn’t simply because progressives are outnumbered or often vote badly. More likely the answer lies in regional Realpolitik: anachronistic procedural rules, opportunism and personal clashes. To understand politicians is to realize that they all play games. In the House, Speaker Bill Clayton’s was the only one that paid: keeping members in line with the governor and the big boys. Legislation favored by Clayton and Dolph Briscoe reached the Senate after threading the maze of committees and floor action. These were laws in love with the status quo. The speaker’s game has a partner: the speaker’s race game. Reps. Buddy Temple and Bill Sullivant both want to succeed Clayton. Look at Temple’s votes, parties and flowers for female lawmakers with the speaker’s race in mind. And note that Sullivant, a moderate-conservative Clayton supporter, introduced legislation to establish counseling and jobtraining centers for displaced homemakersan apparent bid for liberal support in an upcoming speaker’s race. Other House members play the higher office game, using the House to reach the state Senate, an appointed position, or Washington, D.C. The most popular and successful strategists in this game get themselves on the team. Last session, Rep. Joe Spurlock was Briscoe’s sidekick. This time, he was the governor’s legislative aide. In September, he’ll be a Fort Worth district judge. Others want to play, too. Rep. Melchor Chavei would like to be a state district judge or senator. Surprise, surprise: he was a Clayton-Briscoe man this term. Those who sit on the sidelines pay the price. Rep. John Bryant, liberal leader of the House study group and a potential threat to the leadership, saw a number of his bills die. He wanted to be House sponsor of several Senate proposals, but let others take over because a Bryant bill would have trouble. Another popular game is the introduction of hostile legislation. Black Rep. Mickey Leland tried to submit a bill prohibiting the sale of unpasteurized beera measure aimed at Coors, which has few black distributors in Texas. Rep. Phil Cates, who carried the county ordinancemaking law, introduced a proposal to outlaw fireworks. The firecracker Comment lobby subdued their opposition to Cates’ county ordinance law; he let his antiexplosive bill die. A final game: liberal-in-aconservative-district. In the fifties, . Maury Maverick Sr. denounced as “shithouse liberals” those legislators on the left who would literally hide in bathroom stalls and wait out controversial votes. “Taking a walk” is still common. During the vote on the antiabortion bill, several members weren’t around for the vote verificationwhich was recorded. The same thing happened with the “Brother Roloff” bill. Liberals often fear reprisals and vote accordingly. Early in the session, Clayton rammed through the highway bill, 121 to 27. Several representatives who wanted to vote “no” didn’t, to avoid alienating the speaker and the highway lobby. Liberals this session were particularly frightened by “morality” legislation. People who thought that the antigay rider on the appropriations bill was unconstitutional voted for it anyway. Members who knew that the antiprostitute, -porn and -crime measures wouldn’t accomplish anything said “aye” to look good back home. These strategies and games have one goal in mind: image-building. A proposal’s substance is less important than its effect on the next election. The success or failure of a particular bill matters less than “taking a position.” If you can tell constituents that your stand was “good,” that’s enough. Conservatives build their images by harping on thrift and practicality. They tell the folks back home that they tried to limit spending, but the liberals foiled them. Actually, liberals often fought wasteful, special-interest appropriations. This session, the big spenders were the Clayton-Briscoe conservatives. Clayton and appropriations committee chairman Bill Presnal led the floor fight to cut appropriations, striking $43 million in increases in aid to families with dependent children. But when higher education cuts came up, both men refused to trim Texas A&M’s budget the school, Clayton’s alma mater, is in Presnal’s district. Every session, conservative Rep. Jim Nugent gets for the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Memorial Naval Museum Commission, which is in his district. Legislators spent the entire budget surplus on highways and pork-barrel projects like Nugent’s. Briscoe and Clayton call the anticrime package a major achievement. What they don’t say is that most of the bills in it were greatly weakened and that none in any form would reduce crime. They don’t mention that the antiporn and antiprostitute laws won’t solve anything, that they’re only symbolically importantgood coin at election time. Liberals, rarely powerful, get little pork barrel and so have to keep their names in the local news with trivia like congratulatory messages. Only those from “safe” districts \(mainly blacks and can afford to lead. Many of the others feel that they must vote for bad bills and avoid controversythey want to be in Austin for “important” things and therefore keep a watchful eye on rich rightwingers in their districts who might bankroll a campaign against them someday. Liberal lawmakers feel, in short, that they have no choice, no freedom of action. In this we all share responsibility for the Legislature’s output. To cast an unpopular vote, a politician must have constant support and pressurefrom progressive forces. If the 65th session was a bomb, everybody’s to blame. If we continue to default, our new place on the national stage will bring us ridicule, not applause. 0 Gary Keith is a doctoral student in political science at Brandeis University. He worked in the Capitol this spring as a legislative aide.
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