Friday, October 4, 2013
Why Congress Doesn't Work | Casey's Last Word
The nonsense now under way in Washington has me thinking how much better the Texas Legislature is than the Congress.
The Legislature has in place certain structural norms that make governing possible – in contrast to today’s Washington. Here are three of the differences.
First, the Texas speaker of the House of Representatives is the speaker of the whole house.
In Washington, only members of the party that is in the majority vote to choose the powerful speaker.
That’s why Speaker John Boehner in Washington caved to Tea Party Republicans in shutting down the government this week.
It is widely agreed that if he allowed a floor vote on a bill that would provide continued government financing, without restricting Obamacare, it would pass with bipartisan support.
But Boehner appears to be afraid that if he did so he might be unseated as speaker by Tea Party and other ultra-conservative Republicans.
In Austin, the speaker is elected by the entire House of Representatives -- Republican and Democrat.
Joe Straus, the Republican speaker from Alamo Heights, was elected to the position in 2009 when only 11 Republicans rebelled against the autocratic Speaker Tom Craddick and formed a coalition with Democrats to oust him.
Straus is reviled by some Republicans as a “moderate,” which means that he is not far enough to the right for their tastes.
But while he likely could not win a statewide race in today’s Republican primary, he is more representative of the beliefs of Texans as a whole.
The second structural difference between Congress and the Legislature concerns committee chairmanships.
Chairmen are the gatekeepers to proposed legislation. Few bills get by chairmen who oppose them.
In Washington, if one party holds a majority by as few as a single member, 100 percent of the chairmen are selected by that party and from that party.
In Austin, by long-standing tradition, both the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, appoint substantial numbers of members of the minority party to chair committees.
At a recent debate of the four announced candidates for lieutenant governor, Sen. Dan Patrick, A Tea Party favorite, charged incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst with appointing too many Democrats to chairmanships.
Dewhurst has appointed between five and seven Democrats each session during his tenure, which is about a third of the chairmanships.
The system has worked well, forcing Democrats and Republicans to work together.
Remember that the Democratic chairmen always lead committees with a majority of Republicans.
The third difference between Congress and the Legislature has to do with the “aisle.”
In Washington, both houses of Congress segregate Democrats and Republicans on either side of the chamber.
Many complain that members of Congress don’t reach across the aisle as much as they used to.
In Austin, however, there is no reaching across the aisle for the simple reason that members of the Legislature aren’t segregated.
They choose their seats by seniority, and in the house they share two-person desks.
Familiarity can lead to legislative success.
Two years ago journalist Patti Kilday Hart told the story of the friendship that grew between then-freshman Representative Barbara Nash, a white Republican from Arlington, and Alma Allen, a veteran African-American legislator from Houston.
Seated next to Allen, Nash found herself leaning on her for tips on how to be an effective legislator.
And Allen won Nash’s help in reviving a bill restricting corporal punishment in schools.
Nash convinced her fellow Republicans that requiring parental permission for spanking was a matter of parental control.
The women didn’t come to agree on every issue, but they became fast friends who worked well together – a dynamic that is rarely seen in Washington these days.