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McNeely: The evolution of longer terms for Texas speaker of the House

Nov. 8, 2017 at 11:59 p.m.


For many people, Jan. 9, 1979, wasn't a particularly outstanding day. But for members of the Texas House of Representatives assembled in the chamber for opening day of their new legislative session, it was.

That day, they re-elected House Speaker Billy Clayton to a third term, breaking a century-old tradition of no more than two.

Clayton, a conservative Democrat from Springlake, then served a fourth term as speaker before leaving the House.

Since then, no speaker has served less than three terms. When current House Speaker Joe Straus retires in early 2019 after his current term, he will be the third speaker to have served five terms.

Straus presumably could have won a sixth term. But last month he said he'll retire after this term and explore other ways to be involved in public affairs.

The other two co-holders of the five-term record are Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth (1983-1993), and Pete Laney, D-Hale Center (1993-2003).

The three-termer was Tom Craddick of Midland, who knocked Laney out of the speaker's job in 2003.

The Texas House flipped in the 2002 elections from a 78-72 Democratic majority to Republican control, 88-62 — the first Republican majority since Reconstruction.

Craddick, the longest-serving GOP House member, was elected the first Republican speaker in more than a century. He was ousted in 2009, after Straus became the choice of a group of 11 ABC Republicans — "Anybody But Craddick" — to team up with almost all the House Democrats.

There are several reasons terms have lengthened and why the House has avoided copying Congress in organizing along partisan lines as most other states have done:

State legislatures became more important in the 1970s.

President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s, using the bait of federal matching funds, got states to do more of what he thought they should have been doing all along in education, health care, transportation, the environment, and other things.

The result was more important decision making at the state legislative level, and thus more clout to the speaker — particularly after a few years in the job.

That in turn made the speakership an increasingly significant position to affect public policy, almost on a par with the lieutenant governor, who presides over the state Senate. Speakers learned they had more power than they would in most statewide offices and viewed it less as a springboard to run for some other statewide office.

Texas switched in 1974 to four-year terms from two-year terms for most statewide officeholders. One result was a decrease in turnover rates in those offices, and that diminished opportunities for speakers to run for statewide office.

And, instead of having to run statewide, speakers only had to win their own House district, then convince 75 of their 149 colleagues to vote for them as speaker.

All the speakers until Craddick were Democrats. Yet the House was not organized along party lines, where the party in control gets all the committee chairmanships. That was because speaker candidates had Republicans on their campaign teams. Victorious speakers tend to reward key supporters with plum committee spots.

It was something of a surprise when the band of 11 ABC Republicans worked out a deal with the Democrats to back a moderate Republican as speaker. But they did.

Straus was the choice. Since then, he has managed to maintain that Democratic support and add Republicans to his team as GOP numbers have increased in the House. They are now 95-55.

Some Republican members who want a more right-leaning speaker are trying to push their caucus to choose their own candidate for speaker and have all caucus members pledge to support him or her when the full House votes.

Moderate Republicans, meantime, hope to maintain their ability to cooperate across the aisle and continue to have the entire House choose the speaker.

This should be an interesting exercise to watch for the next year, to see whether the House decides to copy the partisan organization of Congress (campaign slogan: "Let's Make Austin More Like Washington"), or continue the effort at bipartisan cooperation.

I guess we'll see. Stay tuned.

GOP congressmen call it quits ... Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, Lamar Smith of San Antonio and Ted Poe of Humble announced in the last week this is their final term. Also retiring is Sam Johnson of Plano, who announced in January he would step down.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

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