Fight over Democratic committee chairs in Texas House


For nearly 600 days, a fight has been brewing in the Texas House. It’s not concerning specific legislation, but may hold substantial implications over those bills that will soon take the spotlight: the appointment of Democrats as committee chairs.

The Texas House will consider its rules for the 88th Legislative Session on Wednesday, during which the body will debate a couple of votes on prohibiting or restricting the appointment of Democrats as committee chairs.

The issue was the feature of the race for House speaker that concluded Tuesday with Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) winning a second term by a vote of 143 to 3 against challenger, Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington).

In his victory speech, Phelan planted his flag on the issue even more than he had previously, saying, “Words of caution [to new members] — please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C. After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C.”

The seconding speeches for the two candidates focused on the issue as well, either touting the practice or knocking it in line with their candidate’s position.

State Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine) seconded both Phelan’s nomination and his position on the issue at hand. “We should not emulate D.C. that is broken…[We should] elevate members [to positions of leadership] based on their knowledge, not on their party affiliation.”

It’s become a defining theme of the intra-GOP fight over the direction of the party and its legislators.

Last session, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) appointed 13 Democrats to chair committees, 11 of which were on his first list of 83 supporters for the speakership.

During the 2021 rules fight, state Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) offered two amendments concerning Democratic committee chairs: the first presented restricted the most influential committees from Democratic chairmanship and the second presented banned them across the board.

Both failed overwhelmingly.

The first drew 11 votes in support, plus six members who changed their votes from nay to yea after the fact in the journal. The second attempt — the more sweeping of the two — received only five yeas with two additional members changing their votes to yea afterward in the journal.

Proponents of the ban justify it by pointing to GOP-backed legislation stalling out in Democratic committees.

During the last session, one of the most high-profile examples was the Save Girls Sports Act — which requires youth athletes to compete within their own biological sex. That bill initially died in the Public Education Committee, chaired by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), but was revived a couple of days later as retribution by Dutton for his Democratic colleagues killing one of his bills.

After low placement on the House agenda, it died for good during the regular session. But in a later special session that year, Republicans tweaked the bill and assigned it to a newly created special committee to avoid Dutton and the Public Education Committee.

It passed into law after that.

But GOP priority legislation doesn’t just die at the hands of Democrats. Former state Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), then chairman of the State Affairs Committee, hijacked then-representative, now-Sen. Mayes Middleton’s (R-Galveston) ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying in 2021 and then killed it on the House floor.

GOP-priority legislation does stand a better chance in a committee with a Republican chairman than with a Democratic one, but that is not the be-all-end-all.

In 2022, the Texas GOP made the issue a feature of its public rhetoric and the delegates at its convention placed it among the party’s eight legislative priorities.

That, coupled with the two quorum breaks by Democrats in 2021 seems to have given the issue a boost in support among the legislature — though currently far from getting across the finish line.

The 2021 quorum busts may be left a bygone issue, but they caused some Republicans to change their mind on the question at the time.

In July 2021 while most House Democrats had fled to Washington, D.C., state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), then chair of the House Judicial & Civil Jurisprudence Committee, tweeted, “Every Democrat Committee Chair and Vice-Chair who refuses to show up for work, who fails to fulfill their solemn Constitutional Oath of Office [and] who neglects their responsibilities to the [Texas] House should immediately be stripped of their leadership positions and replaced.”

But by the time a quorum was restored, the support for retroactively stripping committee chairmanships from those who broke quorum had not materialized enough. And this time, it appears to have more support than at the beginning of 2021, but still short of what’s needed to make the change.

The Texas GOP has been keeping a running tally of House members opposed to these appointments, currently totaling 19.

Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi, a former House member, said in November, “Imagine if Kevin McCarthy took over as Speaker and appointed Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and [Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] to Congressional leadership positions. Republicans would be shocked and outraged. But that’s what happens in Texas, and most people can’t believe it.”

“Texas Republicans appointed Democrats to about 40 [percent] of House leadership positions last session. [Democrats] then use those positions to slander Republicans as racists [and] ‘threats to democracy,’ kill GOP legislation [and] raise [money to oppose Republicans in elections.”

Various grassroots groups had planned to bus a large number of activists to the Texas House, intent on making their preferences clear from the gallery as the rules were debated. They had planned on the debate occurring Thursday, and booked buses accordingly, but now that it’s happening Wednesday, it remains to be seen whether they turn out in the same number.

Gallery full of jeers or not, Phelan has shown little intention of budging on the issue — and it’s fairly clear why.

The main reason Democrats are given committee chairmanships by speakers is to solidify a governing coalition. It takes more than half of those members present to elect a speaker — 76 in the 150-member body.

The speakership is a numbers game and at any point, members may pass a motion to “vacate the chair.” It takes 76 votes to remove the speaker.

Republicans have 86 members in the House; that gives them a 12-seat cushion to elect their own choice as speaker — 14 away from achieving a quorum bust-proof majority.

However, the example set by former Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) looms large. To secure his first majority, Straus and 11 other Republicans aligned with the entire caucus of Democrats at the behest of the rest of the GOP members — a majority of the party but not a majority of the body.

In all, Phelan appointed 16 Democrats as committee chairs last session which is larger than the delta Republicans have in their chamber majority.

This, along with the potential of another quourm bust by Democrats if they feel locked out of the process, is part of the chamber leadership’s calculus. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), the Texas House Democratic Caucus’ new chairman, indicated last month that the option remains just that: an option.

On Tuesday, this episode of the fight over Democratic chairmanships will reach both a boiling point and a resolution on the House floor. But it’s not likely the issue disappears entirely, especially depending on how certain legislation fairs in the next 139 days.

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