Some legislatures base committee assignments — who gets to serve on which panel, who gets the controlling middle seat and so forth — on seniority or party. In Texas, while there are some provisions for seniority and whatnot, committee assignments are ultimately up to the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House.
Assignments are subject to fiat and caprice and power politics, in other words — something like the folkways you came to love or hate in the pecking order back in high school.
Good assignments make senators important. Bad ones can undermine their mojo for years.
Now, a combination of early resignations and new assignments has complicated things in the Senate, giving big jobs to legislators who have to wait six months before they know whether they will still hold these positions. They’ve got power, but they are temps.
The committee lineups will be set again at the beginning of the regular session in January. But there has been a burst of activity this summer, particularly in the Senate.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, filled a couple of gaps out of necessity, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a lame duck, took one last shot at reshaping the Senate, shuffling assignments and making changes that could arguably have been left to his successor.
Of the two main contenders for his job, Dan Patrick — the Republican who defeated Dewhurst this year in a runoff — would love to hand control of the committees to the conservatives whose politics match up closest with his own. The other candidate, Leticia Van de Putte, would be expected to put more of her fellow Democrats in control with a couple of moderate Republicans tossed in for spice, if only because there aren’t enough Democrats to go around.
Those chances will come in January. Dewhurst raised the stakes by naming people to jobs that they will hold for only six months, and only while the Legislature is mostly idle.
The Senate is a smaller body — with 31 members to the House’s 150 — and each empty seat leaves a more significant hole. For instance, two Republican state senators, Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan, have resigned, the former to become a vice chancellor for the Texas A&M University System and the latter to become the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.
Their exits have left two major committees, Finance and State Affairs, leaderless and opened two seats on the 10-member Legislative Budget Board. Finance writes the state budget, a process already well underway in advance of the legislative session. State Affairs handles general but major state issues, and could safely have been left without a leader until the session.
But the budget board’s powers peak when the full Legislature is absent — when the state needs to make spending decisions that normally would be the province of the House and Senate. Really big stuff still requires everyone, but adjustments and surprises — moving money around to allow the state police to put $1.3 million a week into border security, for instance — are handled by the budget board.
The board also will vote before the year’s end on the rate of growth allowed in the next state budget — on how much the Legislature can spend without a supermajority vote. That growth number figures heavily into both practical and partisan calculations of what the state ought to be doing and what it ought to be spending over the next two years.
Dewhurst added three Republicans to the panel this summer, replacing Duncan and Williams and sacking Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat, to put a Republican in her place. Straus’s budget board appointees remain in office, but three of them will not return after the elections. He replaced them without touching their other assignments. Straus said this month that he had not given committees any real thought and would not do so until after the elections.
Dewhurst, who will leave office in January, showed no such restraint. He assigned new chairmen to three other committees, forcing his successor to accept his choices or to alienate colleagues who just won temporary promotions. It is a subtle difference but, in a chamber that runs on relationships, an important one.
Just the way it was in high school.