Politics is often called a contact sport but at first glance, House Speaker Joe Straus’ committee assignments make it look like Earth Ball, the work-together-everybody-wins game of the ’90s.
After a very vocal, if doomed, effort to oust Straus from his speakership, Straus had no shortage of enemies he could punish. There were reps. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa and Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, both of whom ran against Straus for speaker. Then there were the 15 Republican members who voted against Straus on the first day of session, even after Paxton and Chisum dropped out of the race.
But now that assignments have been made, only Paxton seems to be spending the session in the penalty box—County Affairs and Urban Affairs, two committees not known for excitement.
Members of a committee have the ability to question witnesses, debate and shape legislation on the issues that committee deals with. Some committees are particularly powerful, like Appropriations, which determines how the state spends money, and Ways and Means, which largely determines how the state raises money. Chisum won a seat on Appropriations while vocal Straus opponent Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, now sits on Ways and Means.
That’s in stark contrast to Straus’ predecessor, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who took a vindictive approach to committee assignments. He infamously gave ideological foe Rep. Lon Burnam a seat on the Agriculture and Livestock Committee—not so useful for a representative in Fort Worth.
Straus conferred perhaps the most interesting honor on Craddick, making him “Dean” of the House and thanking him for his lengthy tenure in the chamber, which began in 1969.
Republicans did much better than Democrats, but of course, with a two-thirds majority for the GOP, that’s to be expected. Still, while Democrats lost chairmanships, most weren’t left in the corner. The biggest loss for D’s was probably on Ways and Means, which Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira chaired last session. While Republican Rep. Harvey Hilderbran now oversees that committee, Oliveira still got a chairmanship on Land and Resource Management. It’s a big downgrade, to be sure, but still, it could have been worse.
Similarly, Mark Strama, who chaired the now defunct Technology, Economic Development and Workforce Committee, no longer has his chairmanship. But Strama’s still well positioned pursue his interest in creating “green-collar jobs.” Between his place on Public Education and Energy Resources, he should be able to influence some of the debate on the topic. Overall, the D’s chair just under one-third of committees, largely in line with their numbers.
As the Austin American-Statesman reports, Democratic Caucus Chair Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said after the assignments came out: “Democrats did well… It’s the quality of assignments, not the quantity.”
But while the committee assignments were certainly forgiving of partisan and intra-party squabbles, Straus clearly took the House further to the right. Two new select committees—one on state sovereignty and the other on voter ID—showed a clear nod to Tea Party activists who’ve been clamoring for more legislation in both areas.
Party-switchers saw ample rewards. Republican reps. Aaron Pena and Alan Ritter, both of whom switched from the Democratic Party after the elections which gave the GOP its supermajority, received good assignments. Pena now chairs the new Technology Committee while Ritter chairs Natural Resources, a plus for his rural district.
The committees aren’t wasting any time: Appropriations had its first meeting shortly after the assignments were made. And despite the friendly appointments for Democrats, with a Republican supermajority eager to pass conservative legislation, expect to see the House soon looking less like a game of Earth Ball and more like a battle zone.