In both Austin and Washington, the Houses of Representatives began their new two-year sessions as more moderate and more powerful than in the recent past, and also with new leaders – or at least different ones than they've had for the past several years.
In Washington, where the new session opened Jan. 3, the Democrats celebrated a newfound majority by capturing 40 seats from the previous Republican majority – from Republican domination, 241-194, to Democratic control, 235-199 (with one vacancy). Democrats chose as speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who was also speaker the last time Democrats controlled the House.
In Austin, the House isn't switching from Republican control, but Republicans dropped from a 95-55 advantage last session to an 83-67 edge – presuming Democrats win two special elections to fill vacancies in Democratic areas. The presumed 12-seat gain by the Democrats will help moderate the House – along with more moderate Republicans beating out more fiercely conservative competitors in the GOP primaries.
The new Republican speaker, replacing retiring 10-year Republican Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, is 22-year House veteran Dennis Bonnen of Angleton. Bonnen, 46, was drafted by 40 Republican House members over six other Republicans and one Democrat who had announced their candidacies. Bonnen accepted the draft and quickly assembled 78 Republicans and 31 Democrats in the 150-member body to claim the first open speakership in a decade. Bonnen said he will continue the House's tradition of bi-partisan organization and appointing Democrats as well as Republicans to committee chairmanships.
Texas remains one of just a handful of states that have not followed the lead of Congress and organized along party lines, with the majority claiming all the chairmanships.
Bonnen said in the press conference in which he claimed the speakership that the members would choose the top priority for the session. "Having talked to numerous members, I can guarantee you that priority is school finance," Bonnen said. "It is time Texas took on the challenge of fixing our broken school finance system, and the Texas House will be leading with all of us to get that done."
Bonnen's predecessor Straus had pushed for school finance reform – or at least additional funding – in 2017, but was sidetracked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Republican presiding officer of the Republican-controlled Senate. Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have paid lip service to improving education and teacher compensation, while pushing a limitation on the
size of local property tax increases. That's despite the fact that the state's refusal to come up with other funding sources for its presumed 50 percent responsibility for school funding is a major contributor to ever-rising property taxes. Legislative observers figure it's just a matter of time – and not much time – before Bonnen and the House are doing battle with Patrick.
And back in Washington the battle already had been joined, with Pelosi and the House Democrats and Senate Democrats led by New York's Chuck Schumer over President Donald Trump shutting down the federal government in a petulant snit over a wall he wants built along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In addition, by regaining the majority, the Democrats will be using their recovered power for doing lots of inquiries into all things Trump – his finances, his alliances, his policies, and so on – which were off-limits to them while the GOP controlled the House. The Democrats have also introduced a multi-faceted bill, H.R.1, to clean up elective politics by several changes to:
- Outlaw partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, by requiring states to set up non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions;
- Make voter registration and voting easier;
- Clamp down on efforts to suppress voting;
- Return the teeth to the Voting Rights Act that were removed by the Supreme Court in 2013;
- Require presidents and candidates for the presidency to release their tax returns.
Legislative prognosticators don't expect the proposals to go very far but view them more as a wish list, and an
effort to develop an embarrassing record for Republicans opposing the proposed changes going into election year 2020.