Sunday, June 16, 2024 Jun 16, 2024
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The Last of the Old-time Legislatures

THE BRILAB scandal that almost got Billy Clayton may be the harbinger of reform for Texas government. That’s why your lawmakers are using this session to conduct one last orgy of influ-ence-peddling while they can still get away with it.

The adage that you get what you pay for has for decades been the fundamental tenet of the Texas legislative process. For generations it has been an unwritten law that the gentlemen who make the statutes are indeed for sale. And it has not only been prudent for special interest groups to bid for the favors of the lawmakers, it has essentially been a requirement. Over the years a hierarchy of influence peddling has evolved, with the Lobby (a term which in fact refers only to the ultrapower-ful business lobby) working in concert with the Team (the designated term for whomever is in control of the dominant power faction of the Legislature.) When this influence peddling gets too far out of hand there is The Scandal, such as the Sharpstown banking scandal of 1972, followed by an era of mild reform, such as the legislative ethics measures of 1973. And so it has come to pass that last year’s Brilab prosecution of Texas House Speaker Billy Clayton has set into motion a power struggle over whom will gain control when the winds of reform blow through Austin the next time.

It must have been sweet for State Rep. John Bryant, sitting in front of his television, as he watched the slow unraveling of Billy Clayton’s political career. Day after day, Clayton trudged across the television screen and into the federal courtroom in Houston. There was the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, hounded by reporters, accompanied by a phalanx of lawyers. He looked like a criminal. And all of Austin, all of Texas, was in a political uproar.

It was all so perfect for Clayton’s opponents; like a dream on videotape. Clayton accepting dirty money from an unscrupulous financier. Clayton arrested, indicted, and hauled into federal court. It was what Bryant, a firebrand maverick from Pleasant Grove, and others had been saying about the House leadership for years. And here it was happening, finally, and on television yet.

This was Bryant’s chance. He had run against Clayton for Speaker before, and he had been crushed. This time, he could win. In the hectic days after Clayton’s arrest, when every politician in Austin was looking for a refuge from the Brilab storm, Bryant’s crusade for Speaker gained unexpected momentum.

But Clayton wasn’t quite ready to abdicate the most influential position in the Texas Legislature. Bryant’s challenge was like a gauntlet thrown, and the Speaker responded from his political exile. Other legislators would become involved before the drama was played out, like seconds in a political duel to the death. But for most of the spring and summer of 1980, the Speaker’s race was a two-man fight between Clayton and Bryant. It was personal and mean. Legislators had to choose sides, and in choosing, each representative wagered his career in the Texas House. Complicated issues that had plagued the House for years became black and white. Clayton supporters saw the Bryant opposition forces as rabid consumer activists, probably socialists, out to ruin the healthy business climate in Texas. The Bryant people pictured Clayton’s Team as pawns of corrupt robber barons out to pollute the air, soil the beaches, and rip off innocent consumers. A simple Speaker’s fight had become high melodrama.

Part of that drama appeared on the six o’clock news. Much of it didn’t. For Bryant, the dream come true quickly turned dark. Clayton minion Gib Lewis became the Speaker’s surrogate. No one could fault representatives for supporting Lewis, a good ol boy’s good ol’ boy, but a vote for Lewis was the same thing as a vote for Clayton. Craig Washington, the savvy black representative from Houston, also was called into service by Clayton’s forces. When Washington announced his candidacy for Speaker, he siphoned off Bryant’s black support. Between Lewis and Washington, Bryant’s chances evaporated.

The final blow didn’t come for weeks. Again, it was on television. If John Bryant was watching, it must have been as bitter as earlier events had been sweet. Clayton was acquitted. Suddenly, he was no longer hounded by the press. He was a statewide celebrity. He returned to Austin the conquering hero and was reelected Speaker.

With Clayton’s victory, it appears the curtain has been drawn on this particular drama. But stay tuned-the fighting isn’t over yet. The players are just taking a breather.

There is nothing innately perceptive, creative, or otherwise compelling about the collection of egotists, do-gooders, and Rotary Club orators we send to Austin as our elected representatives. For the most part, they are political bush leaguers. But yet they are courted daily by the most influential and articulate people in Texas. Reason: Texas legislators have power. Collectively, the 181 people we send to the Capitol every other year will determine how the state spends an annual budget of $10 billion. (That’s more than twice the annual budget of Argentina.) Such fiscal clout makes the Texas Legislature one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the world.

It isn’t easy to spend that much money in such a short period of time. (Allocation of the $20 billion biennial budget during the 180-day session means that the Legislature spends more than $111 million for each day its members spend together.) And the budgetary decisions the Legislature makes represent merely the tip of the economic iceberg. Decisions like the setting of maximum interest rates allowed in Texas or the creation of new statutes regulating the insurance industry have a staggering monetary impact on the state’s economy.

More than 4000 pieces of legislation will be introduced during each session. Consequently, many of the decisions made by the lawmakers have to be fast and loose. That’s where the age-old process of lobbying comes into play.

Almost every legislator sent to Austin has to depend on one lobby group or another to help him wade through the legislative mire that swamps those offices every session. It’s true that each representative and senator has aides to help, but even they aren’t enough.

Lobbyists become trusted guides. They help inexperienced or simply incapable legislators write bills. They supply information on bills they like, and they argue against bills they want to see defeated. Without lobbyists to help your legislators, the system in Austin would break down.

Most of the 4000 bills never see the light of day on the House or Senate floors. (The Legislature operates on the classic bicameral system used by the U.S. Congress.) The bills are frequently disposed of in committee meetings, which take up 75 per cent of the legislator’s time. Most bills that do reach the floor are never passed, and those that are passed are often amended so they no longer resemble the bill that had been introduced weeks ago.

The Lobby is present during all these phases. Testifying in committee hearings, writing amendments, proposing changes in the legislation.

Only when the House and Senate agree on an exact version of a bill, is it passed into law, and then it must be signed by Gov. Bill Clements, who is not immune to lobby influence either.

There is no Texas legislation written in granite. Anything that is passed this session can be changed next session. The process never stops.

Billy Wayne Clayton’s story is one that belongs in a book of American legends. Put him up there with Paul Bun-yan, Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston. For it is through his efforts alone -and against staggering odds – that the news from Austin this winter has been that there is no news. Or so it seems.

In this, the 67th gathering of the 150 men and women who make up the Texas House of Representatives, Clayton is still the power to be reckoned with. This 52-year-old sometime rancher and businessman from the West Texas hamlet of Springlake is still leader of the Team, a collection of business-oriented conservatives who dominate the Legislature and who are personally loyal to Clayton.

He is a friend of the governor. He pals around with representatives of the big business Lobby, which has over the years contributed more than $400,000 to Clayton’s personal officeholder account, the legalized slush fund that an elected official can essentially spend as he damn well pleases.

He is the second most powerful man in Austin, and certainly the most powerful Democrat at a time when their strength is being eaten away like the beaches at Galveston. He is the Speaker.

A year ago, after the Brilab indictments, no one in Austin would have bet a dime that Clayton would still be in town in January 1981, much less be Speaker of the House for an unprecedented fourth term. But when Clayton was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, he became this year’s political Lazarus. He has sprung back to life with surprising agility, and he is more powerful than ever.

Standing at the Speaker’s podium, wielding his oversized gavel like it was a baseball bat, Clayton runs the Legislature like a seasoned auctioneer runs a cattle sale. Seeing him at his post makes Clayton seem more than just Speaker. He is the Sun King in a bolo tie. He is Immortal, politically, anyway -and those who have questioned that have lived to regret it. It’s something that the 16 men and two women who represent Dallas County in the House always remember. They saw one of their own pay the price of political heresy.

John Bryant’s unpardonable sin was in challenging Clayton after the Brilab indictments.

According to the code of honor that operates in the Texas Statehouse, that’s the same thing as kicking a man when he’s down. If you do, you get kicked back.

And Bryant has been kicked harder this session than anyone has ever been during Clayton’s reign from the podium. He’s been singled out because, not only did he challenge the Speaker, but he almost won. Only last-minute bids by Lewis (the dean of the Tarrant County delegation), and Washington (the Team’s primary black member), kept Bryant from becoming Speaker of the 67th session. Both have been repaid with committee chairmanships.

Within days after the 67th Legislature convened, Bryant was assessed his sentence. He was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Study Group, an ad hoc committee that compiles legislative research for House members. Under Bryant’s leadership, the House Study Group had emerged as a useful tool of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately for Bryant, Team members thought it was being used as a tool to further John Bryant’s crusade against Clayton and the Team. Clayton says he is satisfied with the new chair, Ernestine Glossbrenner of Alice, and the direction of the group. But a Bryant colleague complains that “the House Study Group has been gutted. It will study what Billy Clayton wants.”

The word also has gone out among Team members that John Bryant is anathema, and his legislation is, too. So great is the pox against Bryant this session that even former allies actively avoid his support of legislation they want to pass.

“The movement against Johnny has been vicious, and it’s been senseless,” says one Capitol aide. “They want to crush him. It’s an assault designed to show others what the Team can do. Even non-Team members are leery of him. Nobody who wants their legislation passed this session wants Johnny Bryant to publicly support it. He’s been really quiet this session.”

With Clayton back in the lineup and Bryant benched for the time being, it looks like the same old ball game in Austin. The Governor, the Speaker, the Team, and the big business Lobby are running the House as if this were 1951 and not 1981. In the Senate, the story is the same. The Republicans and conservative (mostly rural) Democrats have formed their own team with the Lobby.

But there are indications -disturbing to the Team and the Lobby-that this 67th session is The Last of the Old-Time Legislatures.

There’s an uneasy feeling in the 83-year-old Capitol that Brilab will force the House and Senate to pass some form of ethics legislation. Several of the half-dozen ethics bills that have been introduced would severely limit contributions by big business Political Action Committees, further regulate campaign contributions, and close the lucrative office holder accounts.

The 67th session of the Legislature also will be the last in which representatives from rural areas outnumber those from the big cities. Suburban areas will pick up a significant number of representatives. That means there will be more Republicans in the 68th Legislature, a further worry for supporters of the status quo. There are currently 36 Republicans in the House and seven in the Senate -double the number two years ago -and who knows how many will be elected in 1982? A bipartisan Legislature could destroy the Team and make the Lobby’s mission that much more difficult.

And Billy Wayne Clayton won’t be there in 1983 to help the Team over the rough spots. Clayton already has announced his intention to retire from the House at the close of this session after representing his constituents in Springlake for 20 years. He is expected to run for state office in 1982 or 1984.

Redistricting. More Republicans. No Clayton. These are the preoccupations of the 18 representatives and four senators from Dallas County.

Only 17 of the Dallas County representatives will be returning to Austin in 1983. Each came to Austin this time with one legislative priority: To keep his district. Each one of them dismisses redistricting as a minor housekeeping chore this year. But pressed about it, they display an amazing encyclopedic knowledge of their district, its population, its demographics, and a mysterious variable known as its “growth potential.” Talking to any Dallas County legislator leads one to believe that every area of the city and county is growing at a combustible rate, especially the district that individual appears to represent.

Dallas is growing, of course, but the out-of-county suburbs are growing faster. During the Seventies, the county’s population grew by only 16 per cent, while the state grew almost 27 per cent. So Dallas has to give one of its seats to the outlying cities like Piano and Lewisville, which were insignificant villages in 1970.

Dallas County is represented in the House by eight white Republicans, three black Democrats, and seven white Democrats. The blacks don’t have to worry about redistricting. Federal law requires that the districts represented by Lanell Cofer, Paul Ragsdale, and Sam Hudson remain minority districts. They, however, would like to gerrymander a fourth minority district in the county. The Republicans also aren’t sweating out redistricting. They are comforted by the sheer numbers in their bursting North Dallas and suburban districts. For the white Democrats, it’s a different story. Only the districts represented by Ray Keller of Duncanville and Ted Lyon of Mesquite are not below the minimum 95,(XX) population required for a legislative seat.

It’s also a different story in the Senate. Three years ago, Dallas County was represented there by three Democrats and one Republican. This session, the numbers have been reversed, and the three Republicans, Dee Travis, John Leedom, and O.H. (Ike) Harris can practically taste Democrat Oscar Mauzy’s flesh. If they can’t make the 23rd District Republican, which they probably can’t, they at least hope to replace Mauzy with a black senator who won’t have the seniority to be as effective.

“From April 1 on, this has been a one-issue Legislature,” says Sen. Dee Travis of Garland. “I think any member who’s not concerned where the lines go is not dealing with the facts.”

It has been a one-issue Legislature all along. What legislation has passed this session is not nearly as important to the lawmakers as redistricting. The Speaker, the Team, the Lobby, the Democrats, the Republicans -they all are united in their interest in redistricting.

Who cares if the House and Senate raise the interest ceiling to 24 per cent? So what if the product liability act is whittled away to nothing? Those are short-term controversies. “Where the lines go,” however, will shape the Capitol, Austin, the state, and even Washington for the next decade.

The Team is scared for its existence, and the Lobby is scared for the Team. No one knows if they’ll be in the Legislature in two years or who’ll be sitting next to them. So even when redistricting isn’t being discussed in committee or on the floor, it’s at the back of every legislators’ mind: “If I don’t vote this way now, I may not get a chance next time.”

“The Lobby has a sense from last year’s elections that they can get theirs this time,” says Jim Hightower, president of the Texas Consumers Association and a man more hated among the big business Lobby than even John Bryant. “And the Lobby is moving with a vengeance to get it because maybe they see things changing down the line. They’re hoping they can get things from this session that won’t be available later.”

In a final act of rebellion against Clayton and the Team, Bryant inadvertantly strengthened the Speaker’s hand at the beginning of this session. The strength comes from the 60-day rule, a mothballed piece of legislation that prevents the House from considering anything but emergency legislation during the first 60 days.

It was passed in the Twenties and has been suspended by a four-fifths vote by almost every Legislature since. But this year, Bryant mustered one-fifth of the members to vote against suspension. He hoped the suspension would throw the House into chaos and limit the number of Lobby-backed bills the Speaker could cram down the legislators’ throats. It didn’t work.

“It didn’t hurt Clayton at all,” says an aide to the governor. “He just asked Clements to put emergency designation on his things. In effect, it let the governor decide what the House was going to do for the first 60 days.”

Bryant and his aides won’t talk about the rules fight, but he’s preparing for a redistricting fight to save his seat in the House.

“Bryant consistently wakes up in the morning and says not, ’What can I put in my pocket?’ but ’What can I do for the people?’ ” says one of his supporters. “You make a lot of enemies that way, and they’re going to try to screw him out of a district.”

If it comes to a real fight on the floor about redistricting, Bryant isn’t likely to get much support from his colleagues in the Dallas County delegation. No matter how the lines are redrawn, however, Bryant’s enemies can’t deny Pleasant Grove a separate district. As long as Bryant retains the enthusiasm of his constituents, he’s likely to be around next session causing headaches for Gib Lewis.

The Dallas County representative most experts are betting against is baby-faced Steve Wolens, a freshman Democrat from Oak Cliff. The buzzards are already circling Wolens’ District 33G, scavenging for remains.

Wolens has several strikes against him. He’s the only freshman in the Dallas County delegation. He has no special connections with the Speaker, although his friendship with Semos, who is on the redistricting committee, could help. He’s a Democrat in a year when Texas Republicans in Austin are boasting of a “mandate from the people” and who think they’ll be the majority in the Dallas delegation next session. His district in the southwest part of the county is losing population and does not have much “growth potential.”

Seasoned Democrats are wary of the grandiose plans that Dee Travis, John Leedom, and other Republicans new in Austin are bragging about. A few years ago, they would have just laughed. But the Democrats are having to take the Republicans seriously for once. Redistricting could be the first bipartisan struggle in the Texas Legislature in more than 100 years.

“I think it’s a little presumptuous for a freshman Republican who is coming in here and saying he’s going to do all this,” complains one of the Dallas Democrats.

Complacent Democrats are going to have to increasingly contend with presumptuous Republicans. The Texas Legislature hasn’t had a Republican majority in either house since 1875. They aren’t likely to have another one this decade, but it is a possibility before the end of the century. Fifteen years ago, there were less than 10 Republicans in the House. Today there are close to 40. If Sen. Bill Meier switches parties as expected (he’s already called the Senate’s eighth Republican), the entire Dallas/Fort Worth area will be represented by one Democrat senator, Oscar Mauzy. It’s a prospect that doesn’t frighten Mauzy.

“I’m assuming that as the suburbs gain representation, we’ll have more Republicans,” Mauzy says. “This breed of Republicans we have is more partisan, and I think that’s good. A political party and its candidates should stand for something, and the Democratic Party should keep that in mind.”

Adds Lee Jackson, a Republican who represents Northeast Dallas, “When I came here in 1977, a lot of people didn’t even bother to find out that I was a Republican. It wasn’t a factor. Partisanship breaks out a lot more frequently now.”

Austin’s first case of partisan fever swept the capital in January 1979, when Dallas’ own William P. Clements, Jr., was sworn in as governor. Statehouse veterans expected Clements to fight with Democrats from the start. Relations were tense at first, but Clements’ personality and style have meshed nicely with the big business leanings of Team members and their colleagues in the Senate.

Clements’ contribution to partisan politics has been much more subtle. He has appointed Republicans to the most powerful state boards and commissions. These men and women are quietly gaining political experience they could someday use in campaigns back home in Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio. “That is Clements’ biggest contribution to date,” says Jerry Hall, a lobby consultant who was former Gov. Preston Smith’s press secretary. “He is quietly building a viable Republican Party in Texas. It may not bear fruit this year, but it might down the line. It’s a smart move on his part.”

Partisanship is a prospect that frightens a lot of Republicans, especially those like Bob Davis of Irving and Bill Ceverha of Richardson who have carved themselves nice niches in the House Team system.

“I like the way the House operates now,” says Ceverha, a former newsman for Channel 4 now in his third term. “I hope that when the Republicans get the majority, they won’t run it on a partisanship basis.”

But a new breed of Republican-flushed from Ronald Reagan’s victory-invaded Austin this year as duly elected House and Senate members.

These new Republicans also have the Democratic hierarchy worried about their political beliefs. For the most part, these new Republicans are more ideologically rigid than longtime Republicans. Bob Davis’ voting record over the past six years, for example, is identical to the Speaker’s.

Republicans now are in a state of flux. “We’ve shed ourselves of the minorities,” says one Dallas representative. “At one time, we were a minority like the blacks. We’re not there anymore. I don’t know where we are. There are no Republican leaders. Bob Davis is the most powerful, but he isn’t helping at all.”

But the Republicans may be forced to take a role that a lot of the veteran GOP legislators don’t want. The Lobby already has noticed Republican strength. In 1980, they contributed to twice as many Republican candidates as in any election in history.

The Republicans aren’t the only ones grappling with their identity this session. The whole Legislature is redefining itself. Although on the surface it seems like business as usual, there are disturbing undercurrents that are radically redefining Texas government.

Time is running out on The Last of theOld-Time Legislatures. The Team, theSpeaker, the Lobby, and the oppositionare all gearing up for another high melodrama at the beginning of 1983. This session is just a rehearsal for that spectacle.Stay tuned.