Worst. Legislature. Ever. How Did We Get Here?

The Republican Party of Texas, hostage to its own overreach and gerrymandered districts, will never fix itself.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick  Sam DeGrave

Grind with me for a moment the gears of imagination, and consider a state not unlike our own — let’s call it Rexas — which has demonstrated an unusual degree of political stability over the last 20 years. One party has held every statewide office since 1998 and both chambers of the Legislature since 2002. The Party effectively has a supermajority in the Senate, and it almost holds one in the House. Ever since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” topped the Hot 100 Singles Chart, The Party has controlled every part of state government where policy is formulated, passed into law and implemented.

Rexas is a very boring state, especially for political journalists. There are no surprises. After 15 years of The Party ordering and reordering the state to its liking, there’s little for the Legislature to argue about. Pass a budget, make patches to state government, go home. But we live in Texas, where something very peculiar is in the water, and where things can, and do, always get worse. And here, our politics have never — at least, in living memory — been more dysfunctional, more stupid or more deranged.

There have been plenty of tough times at the Legislature: mid-decade redistricting in 2003, the budget crisis in 2011, the abortion special sessions in 2013. But in the closing days of this year’s session, a wide array of Lege vets — conservative Republicans, business Republicans, Democrats, lobbyists and journalists — agreed that there was something uniquely acrid in the air, and that it had pervaded just about everything. What was especially poisonous this time was the extraordinary amount of procedural dishonesty — the willful dishonesty from different parties about what was happening and why.

A good deal of that dishonesty came from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s office, a theme that ran throughout the session. His first press conference, back in January, was an angry defense of his bathroom bill in which he denied its true intent. Elsewhere, he insisted that he had saved the spending cap last session, when the opposite was true. And in the last two weeks, he made three laughably bad-faith assertions about the Legislature’s final negotiations. Patrick argued that the House had killed its own school finance bill, derailed must-pass sunset bills, and forced a special session. In each case, he was verifiably wrong, dishonestly removing his own agency from the equation. He doesn’t care. He sounds more and more like Trump.

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Members of the House Freedom Caucus gather around the desk of Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler  Sam DeGrave

But the bad vibes went beyond Patrick. Legislators sniped and cried and yelled and bullied and debased themselves by carrying bills they seemed to know were bad. Lawmakers and staffers both appeared generally unhappy to be there. From the House gallery, you could watch lawmakers play with fidget spinners, the toy for adults who would rather be doing almost anything else, almost anywhere else. Then the regular session ended, spectacularly and appropriately, with a threat of lethal violence on the House floor. And it ended in failure — because of Patrick’s refusal to advance must-pass legislation with the hope of forcing a special session for his bathroom bill.

This is the kind of thing you might expect in the most polarized legislatures, when two parties that loathe each other share the levers of power. But all this happening without the input of Democrats. It’s happening after two decades of Republican dominance. And all available signs point to it getting worse, not better. What’s happening?

Partly, it’s the delayed impact of the changes that occurred in the Republican Party of Texas during Barack Obama’s presidency and ripened during Trump’s candidacy. Perry’s long tenure maintained a sort of detente, in part because no one could easily move up the political ladder. It wasn’t until 2015 that we had our first post-tea party statewide candidate slate, and that year’s Legislature was sort of a bust. The 85th was the session when the promise of Patrick’s 2014 campaign came into fruition, along with the steady turnover of old-style Republicans in the Senate and House.

The party’s like a shark — if it stops moving, it dies. At his 2015 inauguration, Patrick promised a “new day” in Texas, as if he’d just ended a war. What did he mean? In short, that the people he was replacing were frauds. The old Republicans cared first about making money and helping others make money. What the business lobby wanted, it mostly got. They inherited that from the old Democrats — in Texas, economic development has traditionally been king. That’s no longer the case. The business lobby got beat up this year in an unprecedented way.

The new politics comes out of the massive population growth in the state’s new suburbs — alienated, paranoid, distrustful of any government program. That dynamic had been growing for years — Patrick was first elected in 2006 — and then a black guy became president. Conservatism has traditionally been about the preservation of the status quo and the maintenance of a traditional social order. The new politics, which is much bigger than Patrick as an individual, is about change. It’s radical, and radicalism has its own compelling internal logic.

Everything is pushing the party in that direction, and everyone else is struggling to keep up. Patrick’s unpredictability and ambition colors much of what happens at the Capitol and the governor’s mansion. Governor Greg Abbott wants to stay in alignment with the state’s current political orientation, which long postdates his entry into Texas politics. And a circular firing squad has formed, with the House, the last bastion of more traditional conservatives, at the middle. When House conservatives don’t get what they want, they blame House leadership. When Republicans pass a crappy bill, the group that takes the most direct fire from Democrats is House leadership. When Dan Patrick doesn’t get what he wants, he blames House leadership.

House Speaker Joe Straus  Sam DeGrave

But it’s important to be clear about one thing — the war between half of the state Republican party and House Speaker Joe Straus is about process and procedure, not policy. For all the arguing about who is the real conservative, the gap between what the House passes and the Senate passes is small in real terms, especially on matters that the governor has embraced, and it was smaller this session than probably ever before. There’s only one major substantive issue on which the two chambers are far apart — “school choice.” But the major problem adversaries of public education have in the House is that many Republicans come from rural districts, and it’s far from clear a new speaker would make a difference.

Everything else can be chalked up the narcissism of small differences — a radical can brook no dissent at all. The real objection Straus’ opponents have is to the way the House is run day to day. Conservatives want Democrats to be prevented from “grandstanding” on the House floor and to be given less influence in even the most innocuous committees. Though it’s rarely said, they also want a speaker of the House who is, ahem, not Jewish. But vanishingly few people outside downtown Austin and the orbit of Empower Texans care anything about that at all — it’s the domain of people who have run out of better things to argue about.

And yet, the divisions among factions of the Republican Party subsume just about everything else at the Capitol. Why did the session’s school finance bill, which passed 134 to 16 in the House and 21 to 10 in the Senate, die? Patrick’s anger at the House’s refusal to pass his voucher program. Why did members of the House kill unobjectionable bills addressing maternal mortality on the Friday before Mother’s Day? House conservatives were acting out of spite. Why are we facing a special session? So Patrick can put more political pressure on Straus and Abbott. Can anyone say honestly say that this is a reasonable way to run a state?

The Republican Party of Texas will never fix itself. It’s hostage to its own overreach and gerrymandered districts, and political pressure groups will continue to purge moderates and install younger, less-independent members. The “moderates” aren’t coming back, and we’re likely to lose more of them in coming election cycles. The incentives are all wrong, and political independence only has downsides.

The only way out is through the Democratic Party. Until Democrats make serious headway, expect that every session will be worse than the last, and the stakes are only going to get higher. The 86th Legislature just may get the chance to overhaul Medicaid with new freedoms granted by Paul Ryan and the Trump administration, a truly horrifying prospect. Let’s just hope everybody keeps their guns holstered.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 10:14 am CST
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