Texas’ Speaker Is Too Powerful: Legislators have a chance to reset the balance of power in the Texas House

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Our American experiment is based on the notion that rights are God-given and must be protected.  Our Founders also recognized that the inherent sinful nature of mankind threatens those rights when government becomes too powerful.

Alexander Hamilton wrote of the “folly and wickedness of mankind,” and stated that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”  John Jay, the third author of the Federalist Papers, saw men as governed by “the dictates of personal interest” and tending to “swerve from good faith and justice.”

The insight of our Founders is evident to anyone following the recent news involving Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Dennis Bonnen, who this week announced his intent to leave office after being implicated in a scandal that involved false public statements, targeting members of his own party running for reelection, and attempting to trade press credentials to a conservative activist group in exchange for the group limiting PAC spending to certain candidates.

This conduct is not surprising, especially in a system that has evolved to give the speaker power far in excess of what he would have had when the position was created.  Traditionally a ministerial position, it was more common prior to 1977 for there to be multiple speakers in a single legislative session than for a speaker to serve more than one session.  It wasn’t until 1979 that Texas saw its first 3-term speaker in Bill Clayton.

The speaker position as it exists now is extremely powerful.  He has total discretion in appointing committee chairs, largely controls the composition of committees, and is able to fully control the membership of the most powerful procedural committees deciding which bills will be heard on the floor.  By appointing only his most trusted allies to those positions, the speaker has almost absolute control over what legislation reaches the floor and is passed.

This level of concentrated power has not had positive results.  Of the five speakers since Clayton, two have stepped down amidst legal and ethical questions.  Texas has now had three consecutive Texas House speakers who have been widely criticized for wielding power in an overly authoritarian manner.  The position of Speaker of the Texas House must be radically altered to break up the power that has been concentrated in that office.

A series of reforms would provide important checks on future speakers to better ensure the office is less likely to be abused and allow the elected representatives to have more control.

These include:

  1. Speaker Term Limits:  Limiting each speaker to one term, as Florida does currently, will significantly reduce the power of the office.  A speaker serving one term has significantly less leverage over representatives when the members know a new session brings a fresh start.
  2. Rotating chairmanships:  Limit chairmanships to two consecutive terms.
  3. Transparency in Committee Selection:  The committee selection process gives too much discretion to the speaker, even for seniority positions, and is done behind closed doors.  Let members exercise their seniority in an open process like the current methods for selecting desks and offices.
  4. Direct Floor Access for Bills:  A speaker has too much power to kill popular legislation by stalling it in procedural committees.  Allow bills to the floor for a vote if more than 2/3 of the chamber has co-authored legislation.
  5. Seniority Picks for Procedural Committees:  Currently, the speaker picks 100% of the membership of committees responsible for bringing bills to the floor.  Allowing seniority picks for these committees will provide more transparency in the legislative process and allow members who are not in the speaker’s inner circle more influence over legislation.

Our Founders recognized that man’s sinful nature necessitated that no one person had too much power in our republican system of government.  The Bonnen saga proves that the speaker position has become too powerful. The identity of the next speaker is not nearly as important as whether the position itself will be fundamentally changed.

These five reforms will make the speaker’s position less powerful, less susceptible to the Nixonian behavior we have seen in recent years, and provide better policy results for Texans.

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