Conservative Texas House members want GOP members to pick Speaker

Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

More than a dozen Republican House members asked in a letter on Thursday that their caucus chairman allow the Republican members of the House to choose the next Speaker for the session beginning in January 2019.

“A Republican Speaker of the House should first win the confidence of a majority of his or her fellow Republicans,” the August 3 letter to House GOP Caucus Chairman Tan Parker reads. “To do so, Republicans should determine their candidate for Speaker in a called meeting of the House Republican Caucus before the 86th Legislature convenes in 2019. Such a meeting is called for in the Republican Party platform.”

See the letter here.

Current Speaker Joe Straus was first elected as Speaker in 2009 and was most recently elected — unanimously — to that role in January 2017, placing him among the longest serving House Speakers in Texas.

Straus, a San Antonio Republican, has been criticized by Tea Party conservatives for being too moderate as well as for how he first was elected Speaker with the help of Democrats — later appointing Democrats to key House committees.

A call has been made to the Speaker’s office for comment. A message has also been left with Parker’s office. We will update this story when we hear back.

The suggested day for a vote, the letter writers said, should be August 16th — the scheduled last day of the special session to “ensure maximum participation.”

“A Republican Speaker should be chosen first by Republicans,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler told The Texas Monitor. “But that requires an established process inside the Republican Caucus. We don’t have that.”

The Republican Party of Texas Convention when it met in Dallas last year, voted its desire to have the Republican House Speaker candidate be chosen by the Republican House Caucus.

The platform reads, in part:

We… call for the Republican members to caucus after each November general election to determine by secure secret ballot, their candidate for Speaker. We also call for the Republican members to vote as a unified body for their selected speaker candidate when the legislature convenes in regular session.

“Choose a process, so we can choose a person,” Schaefer said. “Then anyone who wants to run for Speaker as a Republican can know how we will conduct the procedure when the time comes. This way we can honor the party platform which calls upon us to choose our nominee for Speaker before the 86th Session begins in 2019.”

If Schaefer and his allies are not successful in their effort to have House Republicans as a body make the pick for Speaker, there may be consequences.

The House Speaker in Texas has tremendous power. They can bestow committee chairmanships, and pick members for choice committee assignments. A Speaker can easily — and without his or her fingerprints on the effort — bottle up legislation so it never sees the light of day or make sure bills get the go-ahead for a quick vote.

Being Speaker also provides the opportunity to raise far more money in campaign contributions, meaning that money can also be provided to allies of the Speaker.

The price for backing a losing speaker candidate, however, can be detrimental.

The last time Straus faced a challenger was in 2015, it was also the first contested vote for speaker since 1975. Straus easily bested Tea Party favorite Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco).

After Turner’s failed bid, he was assigned to two committees — both chaired by Democrats.

And while during the 2013 legislative session two of Turner’s three bills were passed out of the House, in the session he challenged the Speaker, none of Turner’s 11 bills made it to the House floor.

Soon after, Turner announced he would not be running for reelection.

How does a House Speaker get elected?

The Texas Constitution states, “The House of Representatives shall, when it first assembles, organize temporarily, and thereupon proceed to the election of a speaker from its own members.”

After the Secretary of State calls the House to order and swears in members of the new legislature, the House begins to debate and ultimately adopts a resolution which sets forth the rules and procedures for electing the speaker.

A candidate for speaker (or the current speaker) typically distributes pledge cards to the members of the house. These cards are a written promise/pledge that the member will support that specific individual in their candidacy for speaker.

House Rules prohibit a member from soliciting written pledges from other members for the position of speaker during a regular session. The rules do not mention prohibiting this action during a special session.

While the House Speaker is typically chosen on the first day of a new legislative session, in reality, the race for speaker begins days, or even months, in advance.

Often, pledge cards are distributed immediately following a legislative session. An incumbent speaker wants to line up their supporters prior to the election season so they know who to support during the primary election.

Joe Straus is one of the longest serving speakers in Texas history. By number of regular sessions serving as speaker, Straus is tied for first with Pete Laney and Gib Lewis. Laney and Lewis served a total of ten years each. Straus is next on the list having currently served for just over eight years. Bill Clayton follows him having served for eight years.

The average length of service for a speaker is about two-and-a-half years.

Of the 73 speakers in Texas history, 68 served as speaker for one session or less.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.