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As the 2023 legislative session nears, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan is under pressure from a small but vocal group of fellow Republicans who want to ban Democratic committee chairs, a longtime tradition that has allowed the minority party a seat at the table despite being out of power.
The conservative agitators are unlikely to get their way, as Phelan — who is expected to be reelected as House speaker — has publicly defended the practice. But they believe their ranks have increased since the last session and are harder to dismiss at this point.
“Our Republican voters expect us to get this done, and I am confident those who refuse to listen to their constituents will have to deal with the consequences,” said Rep. Bryan Slaton of Royse City, the freshman Republican who is the loudest opponent of Democratic committee chairs. “Republicans will not be satisfied on this issue until Democrats have zero committee chairmanships in the Texas Legislature.”
Phelan, however, said in September that if he’s reelected House speaker, he would appoint the same proportion of Democratic committee chairs for the next session. Phelan appointed 13 Democratic committee chairs at the start of the last session, out of 34 standing committees.
In a statement for this story, the speaker’s office only promised to have an open debate about the rules.
“One of the first orders of business in the House will be to pass rules that govern the chamber for the session, and every member will have a voice in both that process as well as the broader legislative debate that will play out over the course of those 140 days,” Phelan spokesperson Cassi Pollock said.
The current House rules do not say anything about the partisanship of committee chairs. But the rules could be amended to say such positions should only go to the majority party, as Slaton proposed in an amendment last year that garnered only five votes.
House speakers have long appointed committee chairs from both parties, believing it fosters compromise and prevents the kind of gridlock that has gripped Congress. But Republican critics say conservative priorities will always be hamstrung if Democrats get a say in which legislation reaches the floor.
Republican supporters of the status quo argue it did not stop conservatives from achieving long-sought policy wins last year, including a near-total abortion ban and permitless carry of handguns.
“I look at what we passed last session and what the priorities of the Republicans are next cycle, and I ask what Democratic chair stood in the way of any Republican priority in the 87th [Legislature]? And the answer is there’s none,” Phelan said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September.
Opponents of the practice dispute that, noting that legislation died in Democrat-chaired committees that would have addressed conservative priorities like school choice, or providing options for education beyond traditional public schools.
Phelan’s predecessor, Dennis Bonnen, appointed 12 Democratic committee chairs when he was speaker in the 2019 legislative session, similar to the proportion that Phelan has picked. That year, Bonnen faced intraparty criticism for putting Democrats in charge of two committees that traditionally hear gun-related bills, angering Second Amendment activists who had been pushing for permitless carry of handguns. Fed up with the lack of a committee hearing on the proposal, one of the activists visited Bonnen’s home in Lake Jackson to lobby for it, infuriating the speaker and sealing the bill’s demise. The Legislature went on to pass permitless carry the next session, under Phelan.
The issue of committee chairs has become one of the noisiest debates as Phelan looks to lock down a second term as speaker. He faces a challenger for the gavel, Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, whose No. 1 issue is banning Democratic committee chairs. Tinderholt is considered a long shot, and the House Republican caucus is expected to back Phelan for another term as speaker at a meeting Saturday in Austin.
But opponents of Democratic committee chairs are watching to see if their crusade will pay off beyond getting a new speaker or rule change. Phelan could still appoint fewer Democratic committee chairs than usual. Or he could appoint them to less powerful committees. He could also route fewer conservative-priority bills to Democratic-led committees.
In the House, Republicans enjoy leadership positions on the most coveted and powerful committees, like those that control spending and taxes. Democrats chair some of the less prominent committees, like the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee and the Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee.
One exception is Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston, a Democrat who chairs the Public Education Committee and oversaw high-profile legislative battles last session that included a proposal to ban so-called critical race theory in schools and a bill enforcing restrictions on transgender student athletes.
Whether Dutton keeps his title in the upcoming session remains to be seen, as Republicans have framed “parental rights” in schools as a top priority.
Supporters of school vouchers, which provide state funding for kids to attend schools beyond traditional public schools, are also gearing up for a renewed push this session, with clearer support than ever from Gov. Greg Abbott, but Dutton is a Democrat who opposes vouchers.
“The Texas House tradition of having committee chairs from both parties goes back decades and has been a constant under both Democratic and Republican speakers,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, leader of the House Democratic Caucus and chairman of the House Business and Industry Committee. “Texas is well-served by this practice.”
At least 20 new or returning members have expressed support for at least partially limiting committee chairmanships to the majority party. That includes members who backed two proposed amendments to the rules last year that were unsuccessful, plus members who promised during their latest campaigns to oppose Democratic committee chairs.
That is far short of the majority vote needed to actually change the rules this session. But it suggests the appetite for banning Democratic committee chairs has grown since the start of the last regular session.
That is when Slaton’s amendment received five votes, plus three more recorded in the journal afterward. Seventeen members supported a second unsuccessful amendment that would have banned minority-party chairs for just 11 of the more prominent committees.
Opponents of Democratic committee chairs worked hard to make the March primaries a referendum on the issue, fielding challengers who sought to put incumbents on defense over the status quo. Their arguments were given new relevance by the Democratic quorum break in the summer of 2021, which included some of the party’s committee chairs.
They also got a boost from a nonbinding proposition on the Republican primary ballot that asked voters about ending Democratic committee chairmanships. It passed with 81% of the vote.
Still, Phelan’s team staved off all the challengers, and few, if any, incumbents changed their positions as they faced attacks that they were enabling liberal policies by allowing Democrats to chair committees. But in open seats, several candidates prevailed who voiced support for banning Democratic committee chairs.
Among them are candidates that Phelan’s campaign supported regardless, like incoming freshmen Caroline Harris in the Austin area and Ben Bumgarner in North Texas.
It remains to be seen how many new members will make good on their campaign-trail rhetoric against Democratic committee chairs. One of them, Rep.-elect Richard Hayes from North Texas, said Tuesday his opposition to the practice had not changed.
“When you look at the party platforms, we have very different beliefs in many areas,” Hayes said in an interview. “So you want to build a team that can accomplish the stated purposes of our party. And if you have people that have a very different belief, that’s not gonna happen.”
Another group to watch is the 12-member Freedom Caucus, which endorsed the primary proposition against Democratic committee chairs. But the group, which has eight members returning, has been more quiet on the topic lately and did not respond to a request for comment.
Among the loudest advocates for banning Democratic committee chairs is the state Republican Party, whose chair, Matt Rinaldi, is a former House member. Ending the practice is one of the party’s eight legislative priorities for the upcoming session.
Democrats also chair committees in the Senate, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has kept the proportion low. Currently, only one Senate Democrat — Sen. John Whitmire — chairs a committee, and he is making a bid for Houston mayor in the November 2023 election. Whitmire is the dean of the Senate — its most senior member — and he has chaired the Criminal Justice Committee since 1993.
Patrick said in a radio interview Friday that if Whitmire leaves the Senate, he will replace him with a Republican, leaving no Democratic committee chairs in the upper chamber.
“I stay out of House business — that’s their business — but they should not be surprised Republicans, who are the majority in this state — a conservative red state — are unhappy about” Democratic committee chairs, Patrick said.