House Speaker 101
by Matt Stiles
A popular perception of the Texas House of Representatives in 2003 and in 2009 sees the two legislative sessions as very similar because during each there existed a Republican majority and a Republican speaker. Here I present a different vision suggesting that, in important respects, the 2009 House was very distinct from the 2003 House, with the Democratic House leadership playing a much more prominent role in 2009 than at any time since the party lost its majority status in 2003.
One of the principal ways political scientists evaluate the level of partisan agenda control exercised by the leadership in a legislature is by examining the degree to which a party is “rolled” during the final voting stage of the legislative process (commonly referred to as final passage votes or FPVs). A party is rolled when the majority of its representatives are on the losing side of an FPV.
In a partisan legislature, the speaker and his/her leadership team commonly try to keep bills opposed by the majority of their party from reaching the floor (negative agenda control) while at the same drafting legislation in such a way that it is preferred by a majority of their delegation’s members (positive agenda control). As a result, we generally expect the majority party in partisan legislatures to have a relatively low roll rate, while the minority party (whose leadership tends to lack much in the way of influence over the agenda) normally will have a higher roll rate.
In the final session of Democratic Speaker Pete Laney’s tenure in 2001, a majority of the members of the Democratic Party were on the losing side (i.e., the party was rolled) on only 7 percent of FPVs, while the Republican Party was rolled on 42 percent. In 2003, with the transition from a Democratic to Republican majority, and Republican Speaker Tom Craddick’s ascendancy, the values flipped with the Republican Party rolled only 4 percent of the time and the Democratic Party rolled 47 percent — proportions which remained relatively unchanged in 2005 (14 percent and 46 percent). The 2007 session saw a growing partisan stalemate in the House, as well as less assertive leadership behavior. While Craddick was able to ensure a low Republican roll rate (5 percent), the Democratic roll rate was not much higher (8 percent), suggesting at this point Craddick’s powers were much more reactive than proactive.
In 2009, Republican Speaker Joe Straus replaced Craddick with the backing of a handful of moderate Republicans and an overwhelming majority of Democrats. The apparent price paid by Straus for this Democratic support was the delegation of a great deal of his agenda control powers (especially negative agenda control) to the Democratic Party House leadership. This speculation would help explain why the roll rate of the minority Democratic Party was a mere 3 percent in 2009, but the roll rate of the majority Republican Party was 32 percent. While it would appear the Democratic House leaders worked to ensure that legislation that was opposed by a majority of Democrats never made it to the floor for a FPV, one cannot say the same thing about their Republican counterparts.
The figures below for the 2001, 2003 and 2009 legislative sessions (figures for the entire 2001-09 period can be downloaded via this link) graphically reinforce the above points by providing each representative’s FPV win rate (i.e., the percentage of FPVs on which they were on the winning, and not losing, side), with legislators arrayed from left to right based on their Liberal-Conservative Score. The figures reveal the dramatic shift in win rates for Democratic and Republican representatives with the change from Speaker Laney (2001) to
Speaker Craddick (2003, 2005), as well as the ossification of the Craddick regime in 2007. They also underscore the very curious situation in 2009, where even the Democrat with the lowest win rate still had a higher win rate than all but six Republicans, with the more conservative Republicans faring especially poorly. The average win rate for Republicans with a Liberal-Conservative Score to the right (more conservative) of the party mean was a mere 57 percent, in contrast to 75 percent for Republicans to the left of the mean; and 95 percent and 94 percent for Democrats to the right and left of the Democratic Party mean.
Contrary to common public perception, these data indicate that the Texas Democratic Party appears to have played an integral role in the legislative process during the 2009 House session. The Democratic Party leadership’s de facto negative agenda control (ability to keep legislation off the agenda that was rejected by a majority of the Democratic representatives) and substantial positive agenda control (as evidenced by the high Republican roll rates and low win rates of the most conservative Republicans) suggest that, in many respects, Democrats were near-equal partners in House legislative governance during the 2009 session, either explicitly or implicitly backing virtually all legislation that was passed during that year.
Insight and analysis from the fellows of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy