171 years in, the Texas Legislature keeps it quirky

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The meeting of the 85th Texas Legislature is nearly upon us. We've had 84 sessions (some featuring multiple meetings) of this august body in the 171 years since the first session as a state and, like so many events, history continues to repeat itself. Many political themes we'll see over the coming months are as historic as the Capitol's pink dome: disputes between the chambers, intra-party squabbles, the waft of corruption and the race against the ever forward-marching legislative calendar.

In his adventures crisscrossing pre-Civil War Texas, Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for designing New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, reported in his journal in 1857, "We visited, several times, the Texas Legislature in session, and have seldom been more impressed with respect for the working of Democratic institutions." He noted that "honest eloquence was displayed at every opportunity" and with "all desirable gentlemanly decorum." Even so, he observed, "One gentleman, in a state of intoxication, attempted to address the house (but this happens elsewhere), and he was quietly persuaded to retire."

The members of the Texas Legislature had slowly recovered their reputation considering earlier negative assessments of those in attendance in post-Revolutionary Texas. One dispatch reported that those in attendance at the second session of the Republic of Texas in Houston were different from the first: "a large proportion of grey heads, and men of tired abilities and integrity." Intoxication was still a theme, according to the Telegraph and Texas Register: "We notice few red noses; this we consider an indication that this congress will afford but few, possibly none of those more base, most groveling, and most despicable of creeping things — Drunken Legislators." The scene would have been rich for the American Phoenix Foundation's peering cameras.

By the mid-1930s, the Legislature was still run by "grey heads" but a youth movement had swept the state by the 45th legislative session: 46 members of the house were under 30 years old, and 19 were 25 or younger. The Speaker of the House, R.W. Calvert of Hillsboro, was 31. Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Byron Utecht in his book "The Legislature and the Texas People" noted the occupational variety of the members — one a blind musician from Carthage, another a railroad clerk, another an ex-telegraph operator and others including oilmen, bankers, a barber, a preacher, a chemist and a "ginner." They shared in common something with current members — complaints about the pay: "Some members are rather well fixed financially, while others look upon that $10 a day salary during sessions as a Godsend, and a majority complain that the $10 just about pays expenses."

Finances and politics have always been interrelated. A former editor of the Texas Observer quoted a state senator in a story in 1955 who bellowed "Where's a goddamn lobbyist? I want someone to pick up the check for my hotel bill, you can’t find one around here." The rules permitting such events have changed, but the prospect of a corruption scandal can ruin a perfectly good legislative agenda. Billy Lee Brammer, in his 1961 novel "The Gay Place," relays a conversation between a fictional governor (modeled loosely after Lyndon Johnson) and a legislator in reference to a scandal: "Well, most of our people got elected on the corruption issue, and I suppose it would be only fair to go right back out again for the same reasons."

Feuds between legislators and governors are also not uncommon. Gov. John Connally bluntly stated during a rocky session, "You haven't seen anything until you've seen the combined arrogance and vanity of a legislature." Current Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick argued last month he believed that the Legislature shouldn't get a pay raise. Wildcatter turned politician Gov. Bill Clements noted the same in 1989, saying (possibly in jest) that the gap between his salary and that of the Legislature should be wider, not smaller. One lawmaker, unamused, introduced a bill to reduce Clements' salary to $7,200 a year.

Tension between the legislative chambers stems from the members' different constituencies, or as former Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby put it in his insider's book "How Things Really Work," the "House members represent the barbers. Senators represent the bankers." More opinions and complex politics meant the House would take longer than the Senate to "pass a truly difficult piece of legislation."

No matter the year, the Legislature's raw oddity is often on display. Molly Ivins, as sharp-tonged a chronicler of the Lege as there ever was, penned that over the years legislators had fistfights on the floor of the House, levied insults from the back mic and advanced some unusual legislation, such as a bill to require felons to submit 24-hour advance notice of what crimes they planned to commit and where. Speaker William Reed, who served the House in the 1940s, once threw off his glasses and charged toward a House member who angered him, stopped only by the sergeant-at-arms. Scuffles between lawmakers still occur today — though generally over Twitter.

Legislators in Texas possess a special kind of courage, Ivins continued. It is "not the courage of flashy deeds done against drear and deadly enemies" but the courage to "stick through the subcommittee meetings, and the committee meetings and the first readings and the second readings and the conference committee meetings to the final, inevitable screwing." Legislating for a mega-state like Texas is a lot to pack into 140 days every two years.

Even so, Ivins concludes, there is a long Texas legislative tradition that "enables them to laugh and get drunk and laugh some more, and then to try again next session."

May it always be so.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Brandon Rottinghaus

Professor, University of Houston