House Speaker

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has been on a roll recently. At the beginning of this year, he annihilated his competition in an attempted palace coup for control of his gavel. By a 127-11 margin, Straus brought together all the Democrats and a healthy majority of his party, the Republicans. Only the most zealous, obtuse and obstreperous Tea Party-backed rabble rousers opposed his bipartisan mandate to rule over the House. For the first month of the session, Straus has focused on neutralizing not only the right-wing's representatives, but their key policy points as well. 

This has stood in sharp contrast to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, elected last year in a contentious Republican primary predominantly because of those same ultra-conservatives. Patrick, in his dual capacity as the President of the Texas Senate, has pushed for increasingly out-of-touch right-wing pipe dreams in his brief time in office. These include allowing open carrying of licensed handguns and allowing handguns on college campuses, as well as rescinding the 2001 Texas Dream Act, which allows for undocumented students to be granted in-state tuition at public universities, including this one. In doing so, Straus has not only stood up to both Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, but also the platform of the Texas Republican Party.  

Straus has always stuck out as a moderate on many issues, but he has only recently begun to show his true colors. He first elected in 2009, deposing the previous Speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by cobbling together a bare-boned coalition of the most moderate Republicans and Democrats. Thereafter, Straus embarked on a noble experiment: he let the House members run the House. A diverse selection of legislation, some of which I definitely found myself opposed to, came to the floor and was passed by a majority of the members. In the three speaker's elections that have followed, Straus has been re-elected unanimously or nearly-unanimously.  

But the right-wing has never been fully comfortable with Straus. Part of this has to do with his comfort working across the aisle with the Democrats. Part of it has to do with his religion: Straus is the first Jewish major officeholder in Texas. In 2010, when a few high profile contenders first flirted with short-lived candidacies to depose Straus, the crux of their complaints chiefly revolved around the need for Texas to be lead by a "Christian conservative." A few weeks ago, when I was in a Capitol elevator, I overheard two lobbyists for a gun rights organization make anti-Semitic remarks about Straus. 

Perhaps Straus has gotten tired of attempting to mollify enemies who intrinsically loathe him, perhaps from a position of bigotry, and is thus becoming more forceful in his assertions. In 2011, Straus was notably more hesitant on taking a position on campus carry, when pressed by the Texas Tribune. Recently, however, he was far less ambiguous. 

"Personally, I would caution anyone to ignore [UT Chancellor William] McRaven when you’re talking about arms and ammunition," Straus said in recent comments at the Texas Politics Project on campus. McRaven, of course, recently came down forcefully against the campus carry proposal, arguing it would makes campuses "less safe." 

Straus was similarly forceful in his opposition to repealing the Dream Act.  

"These are young people who have played by the rules, who've qualified for admission at our colleges, who've gone to our public schools and, personally, I can think of a lot worse things these people can be doing with their lives than pursuing higher education and becoming engaged citizens in our economy and paying taxes," Straus said in the same interview.  

Now, if Straus' history at the helm of the lower house is any indication, the body may very well still pass these right-wing bills, given Straus' preference to be a hands-off leader. But his willingness to come out for pragmatic and centrist causes, in a state whose leadership is all racing as far as they can to the extreme right, is a breath of fresh air.

Horwitz is the Senior Associate Editor

Campus carry, in-state tuition for undocumented students and tuition regulation were major points of focus during an on-campus interview with House Speaker Joe Straus.

At the talk, Straus stressed higher education issues, such as campus carry, in-state tuition for immigrants and tuition regulation.

Students questioned Straus on his opinions related to higher education issues. 

“I think it’s a great way to make him more relatable to UT students,” said Agnes Matula, advertising sophomore and intern for Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene). On Jan. 26, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) and Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) filed “campus carry” bills, which, if passed, would allow licensed concealed hand gun carriers to bring their guns with them on campus grounds and into University buildings.

Chancellor William McRaven and President William Powers Jr. expressed strong opposition to the policy. Straus, while not explicitly stating his current thoughts on the policy, said he would encourage people to listen to McRaven’s thoughts on
the legislation.

“Personally, I would caution anyone to ignore Chancellor McRaven when you’re talking about arms and ammunition,” Straus said.

Bridget Guien, communications director for College Republicans and economics freshman, said College Republicans are in favor of campus carry.

“The College Republicans support concealed carry on campus,” Guein said in an email. “We believe it can be beneficial to the safety of UT’s students since it can provide a form of defense.”

There has been debate between legislators about whether immigrant students should receive in-state tuition at public universities. The policy of in-state tuition for undocumented students began in 2001 when former Gov. Perry passed HB1403 — the Texas Dream Act. 

Straus said he stands by Perry’s act.

“These are young people who have played by the rules, qualified for admission to our public schools, and personally, I can think of a lot of worse things people can do with their lives,” Straus said.

Straus also expressed support for university control of tuition, which was deregulated in 2003. Straus said the rising prices of tuition are important to address, but he has not seen a decrease in the demand of education since tuition deregulation.

“For me, specifically, deregulating tuition at a time when the state was not making an investment in higher education made a lot of sense,” Straus said.

Straus said the State should still express interest in higher education by supporting research and the creation of more tier-one institutions.

Although Michelle Willoughby, University Democrats president and government junior, said she mostly agreed with Straus’ stance on campus carry and the Dream Act, she does not agree with his views on tuition. She said students should receive more aid from the state for their public university educations.  

“I think tuition should be regulated — it should be lower and the Legislature should chip in more,” Willoughby said.

Willoughby said she appreciates Straus’ moderate stances and willingness to compromise on policy between parties.

“I think we need more legislators like Straus that are willing to ignore the ‘R’s and ‘D’s at the ends of the names and focus on the needs of Texans, the needs of students and the needs of taxpayers,” Willoughby said.

Guien of College Republicans said she thinks Straus’ visit to UT will help students become more engaged in state politics.

“Since he is such a prominent member of the Texas government, students will be more inclined to come and become more interested in politics,” Guien said in an email. 

Straus' inevitable re-election good for Texas

When all was said and done, the 2014 election — both the Republican primary and the general election — was a godsend for conservatives in the state of Texas. Greg Abbott, the furiously anti-Obama attorney general, cruised to election as governor and Dan Patrick, a right-wing shock jock known for evocative and incendiary tirades, is slated to take the helm of the state senate as lieutenant governor. But, in one of the first official acts of 2015 in the political world, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, an independent-minded and pragmatic moderate, looks slated to win re-election by a landslide.

Straus was first elected in 2009, propped up by a bare boned coalition of the most moderate Republicans as well as the minority Democratic caucus. This original sin, so to speak, of the new speaker enraged Tea Party groups. But Straus did a novel thing as speaker: he left the administration of the chamber to the members and not his personal caprices and ideology. While previous speakers, Democrat and Republican, used the house as their personal soapboxes, Straus yielded to majoritarian desires. Oftentimes, in the deeply conservative chamber, this meant right-wing pipe dreams such as a Voter ID Act and draconian anti-abortion restrictions. But left to his own devices, Straus is much less interested in social issues. He prefers pragmatic and policy-minded solutions to the state's transportation, health and other budgetary woes.

State Representative Scott Turner, R-Frisco, a bombastic Tea Party freshman being almost exclusively underwritten by right-wing moneyed interest such as Michael Quinn Sullivan, is challenging Straus for the gavel. But his campaign, in which he promises a record vote, has been largely limited to solely the most obstreperous or extreme of legislators. Straus, on the other hand, has garnered more than 70 Republican votes and is the odds on favorite of the Democratic caucus of more than 50 representatives.

Thus, while the Senate may be taking a step to the right, the House is staying comfortably in the middle. Let's hope it lasts.

Horwitz is an associate editor.

WASHINGTON — If your public tour of the White House has now been canceled, House Speaker John Boehner says come visit the Capitol instead.

Boehner says tours of that building will continue, despite mandatory spending cuts that led the U.S. Secret Service and the National Park Service on Tuesday to announce that public tours of the White House will end, starting Saturday, until further notice.

The Republican speaker made the tit-for-tat announcement in a letter to his Ohio constituents on Tuesday, following news about the suspension of White House tours.

— Compiled from Associated Press Reports

Republican presidental candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pauses while announcing that he is suspending his presidential campaighn on Wednesday in Arlington, VA.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Va. — Newt Gingrich, the colorful former House speaker and fiery partisan, formally exited the Republican presidential contest Wednesday and vowed to help Mitt Romney’s bid to defeat President Barack Obama.

Ending a campaign that seesawed between implosion and frontrunner and back again, Gingrich threw his support to his one-time rival as expected and promised his supporters he would continue to push conservative ideas. Gingrich bowed out of the race more than $4 million in debt and his reputation perhaps damaged.

“Today, I am suspending the campaign. But suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship,” Gingrich told a ballroom in a suburban Washington hotel.

“We are now going to put down the role of candidate and candidate’s spouse and take back the role of active citizens,” he said, adding he would continue to promote conservative ideas on college campuses, as well as through newsletters and films.

He also urged conservatives to rally behind Romney as a better alternative than Obama.

“This is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical, leftist president in American history,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich saw extremes during his campaign. His senior staff resigned en masse last summer when Gingrich seemed unwilling to undertake a traditional campaign schedule of person-to-person campaigning and fundraising. Instead, he leaned on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as a steady stream of broadcast interviews he seemed to relish.

It seemed to work for a while. Gingrich plodded along with a proudly nontraditional campaign and strong debate performances. The showings helped him win in South Carolina — one of only two states he would win — but were insufficient to stave off Romney’s spending and organization in Florida. After Gingrich’s stinging January loss there, the always high-spending campaign seemed to sputter along while amassing enormous debt.

The campaign ended February with $1.5 million in the red but continued spending as though donors were coming.

The campaign now owes more than $1 million to Moby Dick Airways, the air charter company he used to ferry himself and his wife around the country, mixing campaign rallies with stops at zoos and historical sites. The campaign also owes the Patriot Security Group almost $450,000 for security services.

A raft of advertising agencies, consulting firms, pollsters, attorneys and former aides litter the list of those he owes money. He owes his former campaign manager, Michael Krull, more than $27,000. Top spokesman R.C. Hammond, who joined Gingrich at his final campaign event, is owed almost $4,000.

The campaign also owes JC Watts Enterprises — run by the former Republican representative from Oklahoma — some $35,000 for outreach to religious conservatives. Watts, who served in the House with Gingrich, endorsed his bid and vouched for the thrice-married admitted adulterer among skeptical social conservatives.

Gingrich’s campaign also owes members of the Gingrich family cash.

Gingrich himself is owed almost $272,000 and has already been reimbursed more than $514,000. His daughter is owed more than $6,000.

That’s not to say the Gingriches didn’t earn money along the way.

Gingrich Productions, which is run by wife Callista, was paid $67,000 last year. And Cushman Enterprises, run by his daughter Jackie Cushman, brought in more than $100,000 from the campaign.

As Gingrich was mulling an exit from the race, his aides were talking with Romney’s campaign about how his one-time rival could help him retire the debt. Romney’s team has offered to be helpful in that effort.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Gingrich ends campaign, vows to help Romney

URBANDALE, Iowa — Rising in polls and receiving greater scrutiny, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich found himself on the defensive Wednesday over huge payments he received over the past decade from the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Gingrich, who now is near the top in polling on the GOP race, said he didn’t remember exactly how much he was paid, but a person familiar with the hiring said it was at least $1.6 million for consulting contracts stretching from 1999 to early 2008. The person spoke on condition of anonymity in order address a personnel matter.

Long unpopular among Republicans, federally backed Freddie Mac and its larger sister institution, Fannie Mae, have become targets for criticism stemming from the housing crisis that helped drive the nation deep into recession and then hampered recovery. Gingrich himself criticized Barack Obama in 2008 for accepting contributions from executives of the two companies.

Speaking with reporters in Iowa on Wednesday, Gingrich said he provided “strategic advice for a long period of time” after he resigned as House speaker following his party’s losses in the 1998 elections. He defended Freddie Mac’s role in housing finance and said, “every American should be interested in expanding housing opportunities.”

On Tuesday, a House committee voted to strip top executives of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae of huge salaries and bonuses and to put them on the same pay scale as federal employees. After disastrous losses, both companies were taken over by the government in 2008, and since then a federal regulator has controlled their financial decisions.

During the 2008 campaign, Gingrich suggested in a Fox News interview that presidential candidate Obama should return contributions he had received from executives of the two companies. He said that in a debate with Obama, GOP presidential nominee John McCain “should have turned and said, ‘Senator Obama, are you prepared to give back all the money that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae gave you?’”
Gingrich sought Wednesday to portray his history with Freddie Mac as a sign of valuable experience.

“It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington,” he said. “We just tried four years of amateur ignorance, and it didn’t work very well. So having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing.”

At least one of his rivals assailed him over the matter.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s $300,000 or $2 million, the point is the money that was taken by Newt Gingrich was taken to influence Republicans in Congress to be in support of Fannie and Freddie,” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said in a telephone interview. “While Newt was taking money from Fanny and Freddie I was fighting against them.”

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy home loans from banks and other lenders, package them into bonds with a guarantee against default and then sell them to investors around the world. The two own or guarantee about half of all U.S. mortgages.

Gingrich’s history at Freddie Mac began in 1999, when he was hired by the company’s top lobbyist, Mitchell Delk. He was brought in for strategic consulting, primarily on legislative and regulatory issues, the company said at the time. That job, which paid about $30,000 a month, lasted until sometime in 2002.

In 2006, Gingrich was hired again on a two-year contract that paid him $300,000 annually, again to provide strategic advice while the company fended off attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for years had been under scrutiny from Republicans on Capitol Hill who opposed government involvement in the mortgage business and wanted to scale back the companies’ size and impose tough regulation.

In last Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, Gingrich sought to explain his role at Freddie Mac as that of a “historian” sounding dire warnings about the company’s future.

Former executives dispute Gingrich’s description of his role.

Four people close to Freddie Mac say he was hired to strategize with his employer about identifying political friends on Capitol Hill who would help the company through a very difficult legislative environment. All four spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the personnel matter freely.

Before he resigned from Congress, Gingrich was working off debt he had taken on while he was in public life. He had been paying $1,000 per month to an ex-wife in alimony and more for child support and college for two daughters, according to divorce records and financial disclosure forms. The former House speaker also had been fined $300,000 for giving misleading information to investigators during a congressional ethics probe, which he paid off in 1999.

Gingrich’s contract with Freddie Mac in 1999 came at the start of his most profitable years. He earned up to $50,000 for speaking engagements, signed radio and TV deals and started his own consulting firm, The Gingrich Group, all of which brought in income. Gingrich had a net worth of at least $6.7 million last year, according to disclosure documents.

Printed on Thursday, November 17, 2011 as: Gingrich defends big contracts with unpopular mortgage giant

Legislators want to ensure transparency and impartiality in university boards of regents with a new committee after learning officials were meeting with Gov. Rick Perry behind closed doors, said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to The Daily Texan.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, formed the Texas Joint Committee for Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency last month to discuss higher education policy decisions openly and protect the high quality of Texas universities. In recent months, Perry and interest groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation have pushed for separation between research and academic funding, which legislators said could harm universities’ goals.

“We must do all that we can to ensure that these public institutions operate transparently and with world-class leadership,” Straus said in a press release. “The talented members that we are appointing understand that effective university governing systems enable our students to compete on the global stage.”

Zaffirini, a UT alumna and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, was appointed co-chair of the committee and said various universities’ alumni, faculty members and administrators reached out to legislators directly regarding Perry’s approach to governing higher education and the direction of their boards of regents.

Various emails media outlets acquired through the Texas Public Information Act show Perry has been personally urging regents to adopt an agenda set forth by Jeff Sandefer, a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Zaffirini said Sandefer has single-handedly tried to change higher education in the state by separating research from university funding.

“Texas Public Policy [Foundation] thought tax payer’s money should not be used for research and recommended that universities go under Sunset Review,” Zaffirini said. “It was an outrageous recommendation.”

Zaffirini said teaching and learning happen at colleges, while teaching, learning and research happen at universities — a crucial distinction between the two.

“The goal of the committee will be to make things transparent and focus on doing some back finding while hearing testimonies regarding the direction of higher education,” said co-committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.
The committee also plans to monitor all university systems’ boards of regents and ensure they all go through a proper orientation and training process.

“A regent is not a CEO but an appointed official responsible for policy,” Zaffirini said. “Every regent should understand the concept of shared governance and must support their universities’ presidents and chancellors and not have personal or political agendas. Change must be the result of thoughtful collaboration.”

Zaffirini said emails have been released that indicate Sandefer had been meeting with UT regents before they were appointed and that Sandefer personally recommended a few regents to Perry who now serve.

UT System spokesman Matt Flores said he was not allowed to comment on the future of the joint committee, but confirmed it is the regents’ job to set policy, while it is the chancellor’s job to implement it.

Zaffirini said she had a problem with how Perry was pursuing higher education initiatives. Zaffirini said she hopes many voices will participate in the conversation about molding higher education in the months to come.

The new committee will release its initial report by January 2013, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will compile a better practice report to examine the actions of other higher education institutions around the country.
Zaffirini said she believes university faculty and administrations will uphold academic standards while the committee works to resolve differences between regents’ goals and those of legislators and educators.

“We will work with the lieutenant governor and committee members to turn this negative into a positive,” Zaffirini said. “The committee will come up with positive solutions to the problem while allowing everyone to participate in
the process.”

82nd Legislature

The leadership team of the Texas House has been restructured to reflect its new GOP supermajority, with House Speaker Joe Straus releasing committee assignments Wednesday that show a significant reshuffling. The number of Democratic chairmen was reduced from 16 to 11, and one prominent Democrat — Rep. Rene Oliveira — lost charge of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was replaced by Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, as head of the tax-writing committee. Straus called the assignments one of the most important functions of his job and said he tried to “make sure geographic and demographic diversity of Texas is fairly represented.” Straus overcame a speaker’s challenge last month waged by conservative Republicans who complained that he named too many Democrats as leaders in his first term. Republicans make up 27 of the new committee leaders, reflecting the chamber’s 101-49 GOP majority. “I am eager for the committees to begin work on important legislation and for you to collaborate on the issues that matter most to our state,” Straus told the chamber, shortly before releasing the assignments. “Today, I am referring hundreds of bills to the committees, so the House can immediately begin working on these critical issues.” Republican leaders of some powerful committees retained their positions, including Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts and Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler. Pitts wasted no time, scheduling the first budget meetings for Wednesday afternoon and early Thursday morning. Former House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was ousted by Straus two years ago, was named dean of the House. Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, who supported Straus’ re-election bid, was named speaker pro-tempore, a mostly honorary position. All representatives in the 150-member House are assigned to committees where much of the work of the Legislature is done. It’s where bills get their start and are crafted. Committee chairmen have the discretion to let bills linger and die there, too. Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican, was named chairman of the House Calendars Committee, which sets the House schedules and determines what legislation makes it to the floor for consideration. Most lawmakers have ambitions of serving as a committee leader. Chairmanships come with a bigger staff, more office space and clout. But only about one in four members gets such a post. Of the 16 Democrats who were chairs last session, only 10 have returned — four lost their re-election bids and two have since switched parties. Each lawmaker submitted a preference card to Straus’ office, naming their top committee preferences and order of seniority. The membership of the committees is partly determined based on seniority.

Texas Republicans — including Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus — ran and won on a platform that promised a balanced state budget without new taxes.

State budget and politics experts said Wednesday the legislative session may be just as painful for Republicans as election night was for Democrats if they balance the budget with huge cuts to education and healthcare. The budget shortfall could be as much as $25 billion, or about 30 percent of state spending based on the current budget.

The reduction of Democrats in the Texas House means that Republicans will take sole responsibility for consequences of significant budget cuts, said Dave McNeely, a retired political columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

“Nov. 2 was a bad day to be a Texas Democrat, and the day the next legislative session opens will be a bad day to be a Republican,” McNeely said. “The cuts are going to be savage — Texas already runs frugally and if you’re trying to make up $25 billion with just spending cuts, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Spending on education and health and human services makes up about 75 percent of the budget — eliminating all other spending still wouldn’t completely close the budget gap.

“There is literally no way to balance this budget with cuts alone,” said Dick LaVine, a senior budget analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “There are ways to raise money that might be acceptable to the governor if they’re not called tax increases; like fee and tuition increases.”

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, said it wouldn’t be surprising to see an another 5- to 10-percent reduction in funding to high priority budget items such as universities and public schools.

“You couldn’t make the limitations we’d have to make to balance the budget if you didn’t make [meaningful] cuts to the two largest areas of the budget,” Branch said, referring to education and social services. “Our [funding] for our highest priorities is going to have to shrink because the budget is going to have to shrink.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said that fewer Democrats wouldn’t make a difference in what cuts are made and how they are made.

“It was in the hands of the Republicans before,” he said.

Sticking with the strategy of significant spending cuts also carries political risks for the Republicans, said Sherri Greenberg, interim director of the LBJ School’s Center for Politics and Governance.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature closed a $10 billion budget shortfall by cutting spending — including reducing the number of children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which subsidizes healthcare for children of low-income families. Greenberg said that decision will hurt Republican representatives in swing districts during the next two elections.