5 conflicts to watch as session's end draws near

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As the 84th Legislature enters its frenetic final weeks, the divisions within the Texas Republican Party so evident in the last few primary elections have taken center stage with a new vividness.

Competing plans for tax cuts in the House and Senate have emerged as the most public point of contention, but the still-unresolved disagreement over which taxes highlights just one of several conflicts within an increasingly factious GOP. In the abstract, agreeing to tweaks to a spreadsheet might solve differences among the tax proposals on the table. That kind of solution might yet happen. But the political divisions underlying the competing proposals have made such a resolution less likely, particularly among Republicans who have cast legislative compromise as a betrayal of true conservatism.

While legislative sessions are always occasions for a good fight or two, the multiple axes of conflict in the current session appear to be reinforcing one another in increasingly public ways.

This convergence has created an especially strong sense of habitual conflict, albeit among factional lines that seem to form, then blur, then re-form in slightly different shapes as the Legislature nears its finish. These conflicts can be sorted into at least five areas of tension.

1. Right vs. right: Ideological differences among Republican voters. Republican primaries in Texas have been low-turnout affairs dominated by a mobilized plurality that has often, at least in statewide elections, seemed to reflect the preferences of Tea Party activists. Tea Party identifiers, however, make up only 18 percent of the Texas electorate, or about a third of all Republicans, according to February 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling. The relative divergence of Tea Party Republicans from their non-Tea Party brethren has been evident in polling on some major issues (for example, on guns, immigration and each group’s legislative priorities for the 84th session). But this division is not a constant. Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans tend to hold similar views on several issues (like voter ID and gay marriage) with the former tending to hold stronger versions of the latter’s preference. And mainline Republican voters are not consistently turned off by the Tea Party: A slim majority (55 percent) of non-Tea Party Republicans still think the Tea Party has either the right amount or too little influence in the Republican Party overall. In short, sometimes the differences between Tea Party acolytes and their more traditional Republican siblings matters, and sometimes it matters less or not at all. This situation makes for subtle coalitional politics within the Legislature, both for the legislators themselves as well as for the interest groups and advocates navigating these political waters.

2. The other chamber: Institutional tension between the House and Senate. There’s a level of competition and conflict baked into the relationship between the two chambers — an artifact of design that has settled into tradition. In the current session, the different balances of power between ideological factions within each chamber have exacerbated the tensions inherent in this bicameral system. The dissident right wing of the Republican Party is not big enough to drive the agenda in the House, and has been further marginalized by its unsuccessful challenge to Joe Straus’ speakership. Its otherwise marginalized position is strengthened by the threat of primary challenges funded by allied interest groups and organizations exerting indirect pressure in the background. But the House remains guided by the more traditional wing of the Texas GOP, a governing coalition of conventional conservative activists and major business and trade groups.

The situation in the House puts it in sharp political conflict with a Senate in which the dissident wing of the GOP exercises a much more active role and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick serves as both presiding officer and ideological figurehead. In the smaller, more prerogative-driven Senate, it has been harder for more seasoned Republican and conservative Democratic veterans to stifle the impulses of the most conservative senators among them. The convergence of political, personal and ideological axes of conflict in the relationship between the chambers is evident in the slow pace of referrals of each chamber’s bills and the lack of cooperation on linking companion bills.

3. The war of all against all: Interest group conflict. The factional fighting in the institutional Legislature has intensified the usual sparring among interest groups. Whether one leans toward an idealistic view that group conflict is how representative democracy works out competing interests, or the more jaded notion that most of the Legislature’s time is spent on business-versus-business fights that the voters barely notice, clashes among interest groups are intrinsic to how the legislative process works. But the amping-up of the usual low-intensity war between House and Senate by the intra-party fights in the GOP has become a factor in conflicts among interest groups on issues large and small. The differences in tax plans has led a large chunk of big business to side publicly with the House, with some using the conflict to get an accommodation into the Senate bill. These divisions have fed the activities of dissident ideological groups, which have used business support for the House bill to portray the lower chamber as opposed to the Tea Party and Patrick's conservative cadres in the Senate. For the usual players in the interest group universe, the increasing overlap of ideological interest group fights with business-as-usual distributive and regulatory fights has added new dimensions of uncertainty and conflict.

4. Emotional triangles: The relationship among the Big Three. The all-but-open conflict between the lieutenant governor and the House speaker doesn’t need much elaboration at this point. Patrick aggressively campaigned in the 2014 primary as a champion of the conservative wing of the party and a critic of traditional ways of doing business in the Legislature. Straus has insisted that conservative policies can and should be expected to emerge from his chamber by simply following the will of his Republican-dominated body while avoiding the more strident approach of the lieutenant governor. Patrick’s association with individuals and groups active in the sustained, often personal and unsuccessful effort to oust Straus has meant that their relationship with each other has been cool at best, and at worst openly antagonistic. By most reports, Gov. Greg Abbott has resisted siding decisively with either presiding officer or chamber. His policy preferences straddle the two chambers’ approaches in key areas. While his initial call for property tax relief shades in the direction of the Senate, he has soft-pedaled that preference since the emergence of the House’s sales tax proposal. Not surprisingly, observers have read much into reports of Abbott’s dissatisfaction with a broadside launched against pre-kindergarten by the Grassroots Advisory Board named by Patrick earlier in the session. The upshot is that the House-Senate conflict on taxes, and the framing it provides for everything else happening in the Legislature, seems to be awaiting an intervention by the governor — an intervention that may inevitably be read as taking a side in the fight among the GOP factions. Abbott, understandably, seems in no hurry to make such a judgment, leaving the conflict to fester, and to get ever more personal.

5. Whose side are you on? Electoral considerations. And nothing, in the end, is more personal to elected officials than getting re-elected. For legislators, these conflicts are ineluctably intertwined with their electoral calculations. It’s no accident that from the beginning of the session, there have been periodic, unusually public criticisms of “special interest groups and their scorecards” from mainline Republicans, especially in the House. The multiple divisions exacerbate electoral uncertainty among officials for whom no challenge is more daunting or less desired than a meaningfully contested election. In a world where one division — are you a Republican or Democrat? — defines your chances, you have wide latitude and clear signals. In a world where many groups with resources are vying for the chance to define the question that defines your chances — are you for or against Straus? for or against Patrick? Tea Party or not? income tax or property tax? House or Senate? big business or small? abortion after 20 weeks, even in the case of severe fetal abnormality? — elected officials’ anxiety begins to stalk the process, adding to the uncertainty and exacerbating the conflict. Formerly reliable strategies — say, being thought of as “pro-business” — have suddenly become the stuff of new distinctions that may become the core of an election challenge. For your average legislator, this becomes the most fundamental assessment in choosing where to fight, and whom: Will this matter come primary time, and if so, which side will help me win? When there are so many divisions in your own camp, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not, it’s hard to tell.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin