Speaker v speaker
In his first (and only) session as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives (1911), Sam Rayburn – who would go on to a legendary career as Speaker of the U.S. House – helped create the modern Texas Speaker by using his political position to pass preferred legislation through the emerging committee system. He admitted, however, he “muddled through his first session by God, by desperation, and by ignorance.” *
Speaker Dennis Bonnen was elected Speaker of the Texas House 108 years later to lead the 86th legislative session. How does his first year as Speaker compare to other recent Speakers’ first years?
The figure below compares the passage rates (total bills referred divided by the bills approved out of committee) of six major committees from the first sessions for the last four new speakers of the Texas House: Pete Laney in the 73rd (1993), Tom Craddick in the 78th (2003), Joe Straus in the 81st (2009), and Dennis Bonnen in the recently passed 86th (2009).
Differences in committee passage rates often due to circumstances outside the control of the Speaker. In some sessions the state was so cash poor that Ways and Means was less busy (the 78th). Other sessions used key committees as superhighways for policy changes – like criminal justice reform and public education reform in the 86th. Gridlock governed other sessions so little legislation got passed. For the 73rd session, Texas Monthly summed it up:
“When it was bad, it was awful. There were raucous debates over sodomy and handguns, attacks on sex education, and a rodeo war between Mesquite (honored as the Rodeo Capital of Texas) and Pecos (honored for its Oldest Rodeo in the World).”
The workhorse committee State Affairs – a favorite proving ground for leadership’s favored legislation – approved more legislation in the 86th session under Bonnen than the 81st under Straus but not as much as the 78th under Craddick. Both County Affairs and the Judiciary or Judicial Affairs Committee (the name changed over time) have had a freer hand since the 73rd with each passing session. The 86th followed this pattern with more than 70% of legislation referred to these committees pass to second reading.
Bonnen got high marks for keeping his legendary temper (mostly) in check and letting the members run the show. At least as far as committee legislative approval rates are concerned, committee under Speaker Bonnen had approval rates as high or higher on these key committees than most other first term speakers. Pete Laney, who was replaced as Speaker in 2003 after Democrats lost the majority in the House, advised his “job as speaker was to make the job of each member easier by letting them represent their district.”* The evidence suggests that Speaker Bonnen followed this advice.
* Source: Patrick L. Cox and Michael Phillips, The House Will Come to Order (2010)
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Brandon Rottinghaus is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston