The Texas Legislature is an ironic place. Historically, U.S. governments have been set up that are composed of a pragmatic upper house (Senate) and a radical lower house (House of Representatives).
In Texas, the opposite is true. Nowhere has that become clearer than in the way the leaders of the two respective chambers — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Joe Straus in the House — have selected the composition and heads of pertinent committees, the lifeblood of legislatures in the modern era.
Patrick, a bombastic right-wing activist elected last year, quickly made good on his promise to slash the number of committees and boot most all of the Democratic chairs from power. Straus, on the other hand, elected by the House's members in bipartisan fashion, largely retained the pervasiveness of Democratic influence in the lower house. Furthermore, for those Republicans selected to lead committees, many moderates received the most plum assignments.
State Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, for example, was chosen to lead the House Higher Education Committee. As most media sources quickly noted, Zerwas has recently been a supporter of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition at state universities such as this one to undocumented immigrants. State Representative John Otto, R-Dayton, meanwhile, was selected as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with the enviable position of writing the state's budget. In a recent analysis by Rice University, Otto was noted as the fifth most liberal Republican in the legislature while Zerwas was rated the third .
Roughly a third of committees will be headed by Democrats, mirroring the proportion of the House itself occupied by the minority party. Most of these committees are rather insignificant, but others are invaluable. The transportation committee will be chaired by state Representative Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. State Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the second-longest serving member of the legislature, will continue at the helm of Local & Consent Calendars, one of the most powerful committees under the dome.
The most zealous conservatives, specifically the ones who voted against Straus last month for speaker, were unsurprisingly punished. Special Purposes Districts Committee immediately comes to mind.
In continuing his pragmatic and bipartisan approach to House administration, Straus has sent a message back to Patrick: The House will continue being a bastion of real government solutions to problems and not just a breeding ground for right-wing pipe dreams, no matter what the Senate descends into.
Horwitz is the Senior Associate Editor.