The House Tea Party Caucus is Mad as Hell, Weaker Than Ever

The most colorful members of the House Freedom Caucus are against puppies and hospice care — and for cigarettes and hogs.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford  Sam DeGrave

House budget night typically doesn’t get “fun” until the liquor emerges and the ghost of legislatures past comes out from Sam Rayburn’s old inkwell, but a few things happened during the daylight part of the session that bear some mention.

First, state Representative Abel Herrero’s successful bid, early in the day, to bar the use of state funds for private school tuition, which passed 103 to 44. The practical meaning of the amendment is negligible, but it sends the strongest message so far this session that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s “school choice” initiatives are dead. Importantly — Republicans care about this stuff — more members of the House GOP caucus voted for the amendment than voted against it, so no one can say this was simply the work of House Speaker Joe Straus and his Democratic cronies.

In the history of Herrero’s amendment, it is possible to discern a second message. Herrero offered a similar anti-voucher proposal during the debate on the House budget in 2013, where its passage was seen a somewhat surprising declaration of the House’s true feelings about vouchers — an unlikely victory from the Democratic minority that passed 103 to 43. And one that put Republicans in a tough spot.

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On House budget night in 2015, he intended to offer the same amendment. But a protracted series of behind-the-scenes negotiations prompted Herrero to pull it down. The word was that, though vouchers had no chance in the House, members felt it was better to make that plain in private, and not, perhaps, to enlist so many Republicans in poking Patrick in the eye.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio  Sam DeGrave

This year there were no such qualms. The amendment appeared and passed by almost the same margin it did in 2013. For what it’s worth, this session, the House seems very willing to cut off further debate on Patrick’s education policy proposals, and they were willing to do it loudly.

The other major source of daytime ruckus was a series of measures by the House’s tea party faction — Observer favorites Jonathan Stickland, Briscoe Cain, Tony Tinderholt and others — to muck up little parts of state government they don’t like, to derail other members’ amendments, and to shame the cabal they say runs the House.

This is not a new dynamic in the House — far from it. But it seems to get weirder every year, and it’s degenerating into a kind of sputtering rage that’s transfixing to watch. Last year, Stickland in particular hinted darkly and repeatedly about the blood that would flow if the House didn’t start listening to him and his friends. Nothing happened. This year, something did happen with Stickland, though I’m still trying to figure out what it was. (He made his first-ever personal privilege speech — more here — scoring what is likely to remain the highest Stickland Number ever recorded.)

The House Freedom Caucus — particularly its most colorful members — are weaker than ever. But it’s unsurprising that they’re ineffective. What’s strange is that they’re so bad at messaging. It’s possible to glimpse an alternative universe in which they’re driving an effective, visible opposition to Straus, but this is not it.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park  Sam DeGrave

Part of the problem is the targets they pick. In one memorable episode last session, Stickland tried to kill an uncontroversial and uncontested bill that would have decreased the use of euthanasia at San Antonio animal shelters. Today, he tried mightily to end state funding for smoking cessation programs. He also has a fixation with defunding state programs to kill feral hogs. At one point, Briscoe Cain, pint-sized fighter of tyrants, rose to offer an amendment that would have eliminated a state advisory council on end-of-life care, which he termed a “death panel.” Then he accidentally called a rep — John Zerwas, the chairman of the god-powered finance committee — “Mr.,” and the chamber swatted him down like a pesky gnat.

In other words, they’re against puppies and hospice care — and for cigarettes and hogs. Hogs everywhere. Instead of focusing on real examples of government corruption and incompetence, they putter around, doing nothing and getting repeatedly sonned. In a way they’re even helpful to their enemies, moderate Republicans, because they suck up oxygen and attention and are as formidable as a paper target.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 1:22 am CST
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