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New Congress will feature few leadership roles for the many Texans in the U.S. House

 The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2022.
Shuran Huang
The Texas Tribune
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2022.

Republicans in the U.S. House elected their next leadership nominees last week, landing on established figures including California’s Kevin McCarthy as speaker, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise as majority leader and Minnesota’s Tom Emmer as whip.

Where are the Texans?

Texas sends more Republicans to Congress than any other state by a long shot. Several of the most notable leaders in the history of Congress were Texans, from Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who has a House office building named after him, to Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was also majority whip for eight years.

But Texas is vastly underrepresented among the conference’s leadership today, which critics say is thanks to a new wave of more anti-establishment, highly visible members replacing a retiring cohort of old-school legislators.

The state is still poised to have some GOP representatives leading some powerful House committees. But its position stands in contrast to California, which has the largest delegation of Democrats on Capitol Hill. California’s delegation has been prominently represented in the leadership of outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and will likely continue in the next generation of the party’s leadership with Rep. Pete Aguilar as a top candidate for Democratic Caucus chair.

“They are the equivalent of California Democrats,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said of Texas Republicans. “They should be in at least a few of those leadership positions. You should have a Texas Republican speaker. You should have a No. 2. They don’t have anything.”

Texas Republicans still played an integral role in this year’s tumultuous Republican leadership elections, which were nearly upended by a challenge from members of the party’s right flank who were frustrated with their mediocre margin of victory in the House midterm elections and their inability to take control of the Senate. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was at the forefront of a right-wing challenge to McCarthy’s bid for speaker. And Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz was a key supporter of Sen. Rick Scott’s challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid to lead his conference.

Those challenges were in the drain-the-swamp ethos of a new wave of Republican members definitive of the Trump era. Cruz, Roy and several of their allies have been calling for a shake-up in the rules and conventions of congressional Republicans, which they say suffocate democratic legislating by keeping power in the hands of out-of-touch party leaders.

“People want their power, they want their committee chairmanships, they want their gavel. They want the ability to control the power and the purse strings,” Roy said Thursday on the House floor. “But they don’t want to look in the mirror to fundamentally change a broken town, a broken house, a broken body, a broken federal government."

The House Freedom Caucus, which includes four Texans and may gain more in the next Congress, proposed as part of their leadership challenge a series of rules changes to how House Republicans operate, including creating a mechanism to vote out a speaker, allowing more time for members to review legislation before voting and giving committees the right to vote for their chairs. Democrats have proposed a similar rule change on committee chairs in their own caucus, which has leadership elections next week. No Texans are among the top contenders for House Democratic leadership.

But other Republicans find that kind of jockeying ineffective and say it is pushing the party too far off the rails at the cost of serious policymaking. And they could be costing Texas Republicans influence within the current party power structure, said Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Generally you move up in the party by doing exactly what Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn did, which is becoming the master of the institution, right? And they don’t care about that,” Suri said.

Several Texas members were quick to rally to McCarthy’s defense during this year’s leadership elections. Wesley Hunt, who was elected this year in Texas’ brand new Houston-based 38th District, said “it looks like we’re gonna have a very thin margin in the House, and these are the kinds of battles that we shouldn’t be fighting.” Hunt also said he is considering joining the Freedom Caucus and admires many of its members and principles.

Rep. Michael McCaul, who will be the fifth-most-senior Texas Republican next year and in line to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted that “Leader McCarthy has led us to the majority and is the only one who can unify the party to hold the Biden administration accountable for its failures at home and abroad.”

But Rep. Michael Cloud, a member of the Freedom Caucus who supported Roy’s challenge to McCarthy, pointed to a different reason that there aren’t as many Texans in leadership: The state’s delegation has had a high turnover among long-serving members in recent years, costing it some of its deep institutional experience — a phenomenon Republican staffers privately say is a result of the hyperpolarization of the Trump era.

Rep. Kevin Brady, a widely respected member on both sides of the aisle, will retire after this year, opening up his perch atop Republicans on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Mike Conaway, who chaired the Ethics and Agriculture committees, retired in 2021.

And despite Texas’ lack of representation within the top ranks of formal leadership, long-standing Texas Republicans are gearing up to lead some of the most influential committees on the Hill next year.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, ranking member of the prominent House Appropriations Committee, is in line to take up the committee’s gavel in the next Congress, giving her immense power over how the federal government spends its money. Granger has served in Congress since 1997 and was in leadership as Republican Conference vice chair from 2007-09 under then-Speaker John Boehner.

The same can be said of McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who will likely lead Republican investigations into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and be a Republican voice for continued military support for Ukraine. McCaul has been in office since 2005 and chaired the House Homeland Security Committee from 2013-19.

Rep. Roger Williams, who has served since 2013, is running unopposed to succeed Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Missouri, as the top Republican on the House Small Business Committee. He is in all likelihood a shoo-in for the gavel.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who is entering his third term in Congress, is running a more competitive bid to chair the House Homeland Security Committee against Reps. Mark Green, R-Tennessee, and Clay Higgins, R-Louisiana. Higgins is already on the committee as the third-highest Republican, behind ranking member John Katko of New York and McCaul.

Crenshaw asserts he is particularly qualified owing to his aggressive stances on border security, experience as a Navy SEAL and leadership on a Homeland Security subcommittee his first term in Congress. Leading the committee would give him considerable power on some of Republicans’ top investigatory priorities, including the Biden administration’s border policies, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, cybersecurity on critical infrastructure and competitiveness with China.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess could also wind up as a committee chair if the current top Republican, Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, frees up the seat atop the Budget Committee by becoming chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes federal tax policy with the Senate Finance Committee. Smith is part of a hotly competitive three-way battle for the Ways and Means gavel — one of the most powerful in the House and vacated by Brady. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, and Adrian Smith, R-Nebraska, have also put their names in the ring.

Burgess’ office didn’t respond to inquiries on whether he is gunning for the Budget Committee gavel. Committee assignments are highly sensitive affairs, often used by leadership as both carrot and stick to enforce party discipline.

Texans also have a major factor going for them in the committee assignment process itself. The state is overrepresented on the Republican Steering Committee — a group of lawmakers who collaborate with party leadership to make committee assignments. Texas already has two seats reserved for its delegation, this year filled by Reps. Jodey Arrington and John Carter, and Rep. August Pfluger is the sophomore class representative. Most other states have to share regional representatives on the committee.

And over in the Senate, John Cornyn remains one of the most influential members of his conference. A close McConnell ally, Cornyn was party whip from 2013-19 and led Senate Republicans’ campaign arm from 2009-13. He has long been considered a potential successor to McConnell for party leader and continues to have his hand on the levers of his conference, demonstrated with the passage of high-profile legislation including a bipartisan gun safety bill that cost him a share of goodwill within the more dogmatic corners of the party.

These members set to take on plum positions outside of formal leadership are not moderates. They are fully conservative and have voted reliably with their party on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to birth control to climate change.

But some Republicans say that brand of deeply conservative but serious lawmakers is being increasingly replaced by members who focus more on messaging than anything else.

Crenshaw lambasted what he called the “woke right” within his party earlier this year, saying during this year’s Texas Tribune Festival, “They don’t write any actual legislation, they won’t negotiate anything. It’s just fire and brimstone all of the time. You’re incentivized by extra clicks, and you get extra clicks by engaging in rank dishonesty and conspiracy.”

Crenshaw didn’t name any specific members of his party at the time and wasn’t speaking in the context of the current leadership transition. But he made similar remarks in response to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Georgian who has been the face of an extreme lurch within the conference. That lurch has also had its effects trickle up the ladder, and she is a possible contender for House Oversight chair.

Suri, the UT historian, said the ideological commitment isn’t what’s changed since Texas’ leadership heyday in the House. Figures like Rayburn and former U.S. Rep.-turned-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, he said, could be demagogues in the tradition of midcentury Texas Democrats, but “these were really serious figures.”

“And I don’t think we have that now,” Suri said.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Matthew Choi | The Texas Tribune