Let’s see a show of hands: How many of you would like to make Texas government more like Washington? 

Silly question, right? But that appears to be exactly what the Republican Party of Texas wants. 

That’s the bad news. The good news? That’s not what most Republican voters want. 

It’s the story behind a weird controversy that recently came out of Austin. In the wake of last month’s election, a conservative state representative from a solidly red East Texas district lined up pledges of support from well more than half of the 83 Republicans in the state House of Representatives and more than enough of the 67 Democrats to give him more than the 76 votes he needs to win the powerful position of Texas House speaker.

Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont quickly won congratulations from Gov. Greg Abbott and outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen. But Allen West, the new chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, called him a “traitor.” 

In an email, West explained his reasoning: “Texas will not allow the undermining of our ‘Texas Republic.’ This is why the Republican Party of Texas is perplexed, and will not support, a potential Texas Speaker of the House who would seek affirmation from progressive socialist Democrats to attain that position.”

You can forgive West for not knowing that Texas voters – even the Democrats – don’t send a lot of socialists to Austin. He came to Texas from Florida only after his one-term career as a congressman there was ended by Sunshine State voters in 2012. 

Also, West’s categorization of Democrats is suspect. In response to a question that year at a constituent forum as to what percentage of congressional Democrats were “card-carrying Marxists,” West said, “That’s a good question. I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party.” You can judge whether he was kidding by watching the video here.

But West isn’t the only one angry at Phelan for his bid to become House speaker. So are many of the state Republican party delegates who overwhelmingly elected West chairman last summer. The reason is that the party wants Republicans to choose the speaker of the Texas House the same way the speaker is chosen in Congress: in a closed session of the Republican caucus. And they want it done by secret ballot.

In Washington, the majority party gets almost total control over what bills get a floor vote. Right now that control is exercised by Nancy Pelosi. Before her were Republicans such as Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Dennis Hastert. And in Washington, every committee is chaired by and contains a majority from the majority party. 

This structure, of course, is a major factor in the polarized, hostile atmosphere and gridlock in Washington. By well-established custom we do it differently in Texas, despite years of pressure from the official Republican Party.

Rather than wait for a party caucus, candidates for speaker quietly collect pledge cards from members in the weeks leading up to and just after the election. Usually well before the first day of the new session in January someone has collected more than the 76 cards needed. To get to that number the candidates seek support from members of both parties.

Another important difference: By tradition the speaker of the Texas House appoints members of the opposing party to committee chairmanships. This is done in rough proportion to their numbers in the full body, although the most powerful committees tend to be chaired by members of the speaker’s party.   

An important factor in making the system work is the informal job description of the speaker of the Texas House. Part of it is to help set the agenda for major bills, but a larger part is to serve and protect the members, to help them achieve their legislative goals, and to meet the needs of their constituents.

The Republican Party purists such as West would like to see the speaker discipline any member of his own party who did not toe the party line. But when Texas speakers have done that it has not turned out well for them.

Speaker Tom Craddick, for example, grew increasingly unpopular with members of both parties during his three terms beginning in 2003. He became seen as autocratic, and even gave money (much of it from Congressman Tom DeLay) to primary opponents of Republicans members who bucked him.

The result was that a group of Republicans tried to unseat him in 2007 but failed. Two years later, however, 11 Republicans chose San Antonio’s Joe Straus – a center-right Republican beginning only his third term – to challenge Craddick. They were joined by all the Democrats. It was enough. By the time the formal vote was taken it was unanimous.

Straus stuck to the Texas servant model for speakers. A good deal of conservative legislation was passed, but so were progressive measures, particularly in criminal justice reform. And he protected his members.

A high-profile example was the controversial “bathroom bill” requiring that transgender people use the bathroom determined by their gender at birth. Many of Straus’ Republican members did not want to vote on the bill because while many of their primary voters were for it, many of their major funders opposed it. Similar legislation in North Carolina had led to a national boycott of the state by large corporations. 

Despite public pressure from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – who runs the Senate in a way that more closely follows what party purists want – Straus made sure the “bathroom bill” did not get a floor vote.

Abbott also benefited. He cynically criticized Straus publicly on the issue, playing to the Republican base, while telling some of his major funders not to worry because Straus would kill the bill

When Straus retired from the House two years ago after serving a record-tying five terms (a measure of his popularity among members), he was succeeded by Bonnen. The Republican from Angleton was more conservative than Straus but followed Straus’ model of speakership rather than Craddick’s and was widely praised at the end of the 2019 session by members of both parties. What’s more, the session he led accomplished more in its five month-term – including ambitious bipartisan school finance reform – than Congress has accomplished in the last four years.

But then Bonnen was caught on tape secretly imploring the head of a right-wing lobbying group to fund primary opponents of 10 Republican members who had voted against a bill prohibiting local entities such as cities, school districts, and their statewide associations from using tax money to hire lobbyists. That act of intraparty treachery made Bonnen a one-term speaker. Reading the cards, he retired not only from the speakership but also from the House. 

The lesson is very clear to Phelan and somewhat pointed. He was a key sponsor of that anti-city bill – a hot-button cause for the Republican right. It will be interesting to see how he finesses the issue. But one thing is clear: Being called a “traitor” by the official Republican Party is not something for him to worry about. After all, even before electing West, the party had censured Straus at both the Bexar County and state level. Yet there’s little question Straus would have been reelected both to the Legislature and to the speakership had he chosen to run in 2018.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.