Why You Should Care About The Next Texas Speaker Of The House

Nov 13, 2018

The top three elected officials in Texas are the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. But you didn't find that last official on the Nov. 6 ballot, because we, the voters of Texas, don't get to vote for speaker.

How does a speaker get picked?

Let's back up a bit. The Texas House comprises 150 members, voted into office from their local districts. Each district has about 160,000 people.

On the first day of the legislative session, the 150 members pick one of their own to preside over the House. That person is the speaker. The speaker usually comes from the party that holds the majority in the House. The 2019 session will consist of 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats.

What can speakers do?

Even though the speaker of the House isn't elected by a statewide vote, he or she is as powerful as the lieutenant governor.

That explains nothing. Can you elaborate?

Sure, that power includes the ability to assign members to all the committees in the House and pick the chairs of each. The speaker also directs which bills go to which committees. And it's a speaker-picked group of lawmakers on what's called the Calendars Committee that determines which bills make it to the House floor for debate.

So, basically, if the speaker doesn't want a bill to come up for a vote, it won't. We saw Speaker Joe Straus use this power last year to stop a bill that would have restricted transgender bathroom use.

You could argue the speaker has more power than the governor, because while the governor does have the bully pulpit of the executive branch, the governor can't write bills. He or she can only wait for them to arrive and then sign or veto them.

But wait, I still don't care.

During the last couple of legislative sessions, we've seen a dramatic divide between the Texas House and the Texas Senate. The Senate, led by conservative firebrand Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has focused on social issues and Republican red meat. The body has passed legislation to create a school voucher program, ban abortions and restrict bathroom access. Those bills have died in the House – not exclusively because of, but certainly with help from Speaker Straus.

So now we're going to have a new speaker, and it certainly looks like Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen will win the job. He announced Monday that he has 109 supporters; he needs only 76.

Bonnen was a close ally of Straus and holds similar views on many pieces of legislation.

But he is his own man and certainly might be more supportive of some of the items coming over from the Senate, while taking a harder line on others.

I'm pretty busy. Can you sum up why I should care in one sentence?

Fine: Whatever makes it to the governor's desk has to go through the House, and the new speaker, who has shown he doesn't always agree with legislation from the Senate, will play a large role in what passes and what doesn't.

That's a bunch of commas. Are you sure that's not really two sentences?

Shut it, grammar nerd!