House GOP report calls bypassing Democrats in selecting new speaker

A work group of the Texas House Republican Caucus is recommending that the caucus consider changing its bylaws to choose a candidate for House speaker in December 2018 in advance of the next regular legislative session, effectively bypassing Democrats.

The change is intended to increase the likelihood that, with Speaker Joe Straus’ announcement that he will not seek re-election next year, the next speaker will be the first choice of Republican members of the House, and not the favorite of a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

Conservative Republicans grew frustrated that the House under Straus’ leadership had failed to adopt bills restricting transgender-friendly bathrooms and spending public money for private school tuition, among other things.

The recommendation of the five-member work group named by the full caucus in September was contained in a six-page report distributed to Republican members of the House by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, on Halloween night during the sixth game of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, told the American-Statesman last week that he had spoken to more than majority of members of the caucus who supported the recommendation, which had been expected.

But the report by a work group that included both supporters and critics of Straus, was written in a manner that soft-pedaled its recommendation, burying it in Exhibit C, and noting at the outset that, “the work group was not charged with recommending to the caucus whether or not it should adopt a policy to `select, or otherwise endorse, a nominee for Speaker of the House’ — that is the body’s decision.”

That said, the report calls on the caucus to meet, that a change in the by-laws be “considered, debated and voted on,” and that the change the work group is recommending is for the caucus to add to its purposes, “to select a candidate for speaker of the House.”

The full Republican caucus is expected to take up the recommendation on Dec. 1.

Under the recommended new provision, the speaker candidate would be chosen from among the members of the caucus at a meeting in December 2018.

While the bylaws indicate that a member who is not returning to the House should not be counted for purposes of establishing a quorum for a caucus vote affecting the next session, the report does not specify a mechanism for having incoming members, who have been elected but not been sworn in yet, and not outgoing members, participate in the speaker vote.

Under the proposed bylaw change, any member can be nominated, unless that person declines. Each candidate would get 10 minutes for speeches, divided among as many as three members, including the candidate. A majority of votes is required to nominate a candidate, with as many ballots as are needed to achieve that result. Beginning on the third ballot, the candidate with the least votes on the previous ballot is eliminated. Once the choice is made the chairman of the caucus will make public the result.

The work group report suggests that its proposal be subject to amendment, “including one clarifying whether the vote should be open or secret.”

The state Republican Party Platform, which calls for a vote like the one described in the report, favors a secret ballot.

The Texas Constitution and state law entrusts the choice of speaker to the members of the House, but the report concludes that there is nothing to stop the caucus from selecting or endorsing a candidate for speaker. At the same time, the report noted, the caucus choice is not binding on the members when they vote for speaker on the opening day of next session in January 2019.

The committee found that in 39 of the 46 states for which it could find information, there is a procedure for the majority party to identify a candidate to either nominate or elect for speaker.

The five members of the committee are Reps. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, one of the dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, which was instrumental in seeking the change; Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, an enthusiastic supporter of the change; Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the powerful Calendars Committee under Straus; Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, another Straus ally; and Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo. All five attached their names to the report.

Simmons and other supporters of the new procedure hope to apply political pressure on all members to agree in advance to abide by the choice of the caucus when they vote for speaker, and to make it an issue in the March primaries.

The intent is to avoid a repeat of a Straus speakership, which in 2009 originated with Straus, a San Antonio Republican and relative newcomer, becoming the choice of a coalition of Democrats and a handful of key Republican members disaffected with the speakership of Tom Craddick, in what was then a nearly evenly-divided House with a slim Republican majority. Ever since, Straus has led in a relatively moderate and bipartisan fashion that has grated on some conservative members as the Republican majority has grown to 95 of 150 members of the House. When he completes his term, no speaker will have served longer.

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