Slouching Toward Sine Die: A Special Session Driven by Party Politics, Not Public Demand

As the special session of the Texas Legislature convened July 16 nears its conclusion, all signs indicate that the legislature will fall well short of sending legislation that would address all of Governor Abbott’s wish list to his desk. This outcome – seemingly at odds with the Governor’s “20 for 20” rhetoric of only a few weeks ago – emerges amidst the widespread expectation in state political circles that all three major state leaders are ready to exit the field and declare their own version of victory.

The lowered expectations for the special session make sense if one looks at conservative and Republican attitudes toward the legislature and statewide leaders at the conclusion of the regular session of the 85th Legislature. While Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, and the leadership of some of the state’s most vocal conservative interest groups have either suggested or implied widespread public demand for more action, polling suggests significant conservative contentment with the results of the 85th – and thus, little active demand for more legislation from the legislature at this time. 

Last week, with the 30-day special session well past the halfway mark, Governor Abbott told Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman, “...that in 10 days we are going to have a Texas that I consider to be far better, more conservative, that will continue the Texas model for conservative governance.” The Governor’s comments, like much of the agenda he directed the legislature to address, echoed Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s ongoing calls for the legislature to meet the unfulfilled demands of Texas voters.

However, conservative voters, as a group, don’t appear to show the same discontent expressed by their conservative elected officials, nor by the figureheads and spokespeople of conservative interest groups in the run up to the session. The June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggested that conservative voters in the state expressed the highest levels of approval both of what the Legislature had already accomplished and of the state government leaders who presided over the often fractious session – and post-session approval of the legislature among conservatives was stronger in 2017 than in 2015. Among Republicans who identify with the Tea Party (29 percent of Republicans overall), 75 percent expressed approval, an increase of 6 percentage points over the same time period after the previous legislative session in 2015. These attitudes were also more intense: 34 percent strongly approved, up 12 percentage points from the previous session.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%10%21%
Approve somewhat6%11%39%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%24%17%
Disapprove somewhat17%16%11%
Disapprove strongly50%33%4%
Don't know8%7%7%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Approve strongly2%21%34%
Approve somewhat5%38%41%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%21%12%
Disapprove somewhat17%10%6%
Disapprove strongly54%4%5%
Don't know8%7%2%

Nor is the narrative of widespread conservative discontent evident in conservative views of the agenda the legislature pursued during the regular session. We compiled a list of high profile issues engaged by the legislature for the same June poll. Tea Party identifiers expressed more support than any other group in 8 out of the 11 issues assessed. Of these eight, the legislature passed four measures in whole or in part, and appears likely to pass one or two more by the conclusion of the special session.

Whether this level of success is a glass half full or half empty, the strong enforcement measures ostensibly aimed at undocumented immigrants contained in Senate Bill 4 is far and above the most important item to be put on the agenda and delivered for conservatives of all stripes. Immigration and border security are perennially cited by large majorities of Republicans as the most important problem facing Texas in the last several years of polling. By these indications, the most ideological and committed conservative primary voters were highly approving of the work done by their elected leaders, which is not surprising since the legislative agenda reflected their preferences, and the legislature gave them much of what they wanted.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Immigration7%30%33%
Border security2%17%29%
Political corruption/leadership24%1%4%
Education9%3%4%
Health care9%7%1%
Crime and drugs5%3%1%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly support12%61%87%
Somewhat support13%22%8%
Somewhat oppose20%5%2%
Strongly oppose43%7%2%
Don't know12%6%1%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly support8%62%84%
Somewhat support8%23%12%
Somewhat oppose17%6%2%
Strongly oppose61%6%3%
Don't know6%2%0%

 

Herein lies the puzzle of the message that the legislature has somehow let down conservatives in the state, who are in turn – we are told – clamoring for them to do a better job.

While this situation seemed like something of a puzzle at the outset of the special session, the increasing evidence of chill attitudes toward what will likely be #WayFewerThan20 results reflects the reality that whatever generated this session, it wasn’t fear of a dissatisfied and mobilized conservative GOP primary electorate. 

So where did this special session and its agenda come from?

To modify a famous Barry Goldwater line to the current moment, it could simply be the view that extremism in the name of conservatism is no vice. Whether conservative voters are demanding it or not, it may be that the main proponents of the special session’s agenda – the Governor and Lt. Governor – seized a successful moment to build momentum for the agenda that both officials have promoted, often in the name of all Texans. They are, perhaps, fighting the good fight.

However, it’s not necessary to question the Governor and Lt. Governor’s philosophical dedication to also observe that both are likely attentive to powerful political crosscurrents as they navigate electoral politics in the run-up to statewide elections next year. 

The transition from legislative sessions preceding non-presidential election years in which statewide officials are elected is always colored by the upcoming elections, but this transition is particularly fraught with those electoral politics. The Governor and Lt. Governor will seek re-election to their offices, making them particularly attentive to the Republican primary electorate – an engaged group of very conservative voters. This attention informs the barely subterranean maneuvering between them in their efforts to demonstrate their dedication to claiming credit for conservative legislative accomplishment, and to assigning blame for failures. 

This seemingly perpetual jockeying for standing among Texas’ most conservative voters has also been reinforced by national politics. While the Texas legislature is inherently focused on state policy and politics, the chaos surrounding the Trump administration and the Republican Congress elected in 2016 creates powerful incentives for Texas Republicans to segregate themselves, and their brand, from their national comrades. This is a complicated effort, as Trump’s approval numbers remain strong among Republican voters amidst brewing scandals and erratic behavior, while job approval of Congress remains dismal – even among Texas Republicans. Further congressional dysfunction only increases the potential value of turning resolutely inward in the face of national midterm elections that will be anything but predictable. It’s a sound hedge for Texas candidates. Given this context, the special session seems not so much about unfinished business, save the matter of sunset legislation, but instead serves the function of strengthening the distinction between the Texas GOP and the brand of their more problematic national comrades. 

While the promotion of a conservative special session agenda fits neatly in the effort to seal off state politics from the national unpleasantness, the emerging acceptance of a relatively low bar for success, in terms of how many subjects get knocked off the Governor’s list, also reflects internal realities of state politics. 

While damming in state politics to protect state Republicans from the rough national waters is  by most calculations a net gain for state Republicans, politics in the state GOP are fraught with their own powerful cross-currents.

Despite the periodic declarations of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity in the fight to further entrench “conservative governance” – most often heard from the Lt. Governor – there is plenty of subtle shoving going on between Gov. Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick. Their mutual desire to build and maintain stature among the GOP base and conservative interest groups generates much of this conflict, though it also grows out of the constitutionally baked-in conflict between both their offices and their branches of government – the latter systematically underestimated in press coverage that both dwells on, and feeds, the personal dimensions of this conflict and tension among the big three.  

Speaker Straus is naturally the odd-man out, and the most likely to take more public fire from both Abbott and Patrick. The tendency of Straus to seem posed against the other two results in a variation on the same intersection of politics and institutional position that make the Governor and Lt. Governor sometimes seem like Baratheon brothers. Straus is clearly more moderate in his political temperament and follows a model of balancing Republican interests tilted more in the direction of the party’s economic growth wing. And of course, critically, Straus’s direct constituencies are different: he answers to the voters in his district, and the members of the body that has elected and re-elected him Speaker. As such, he has less of a need to project solidarity with the statewide elected officals other than as a matter of legislative strategy and, much less urgently, party politics.

Given this constellation of interests and positioning, Lt. Governor Patrick’s hostage-taking bid for agenda control elicited what was, in retrospect and at least in its general outline, a predictable escalation from Governor Abbott. The 20-item special session agenda, a pastiche of poll-validated mainstream items (e.g. nods toward property tax...modification) with a good dose of socially conservative niche items (abortion, bathrooms) and just a dash of baroque pet items (trees), simultaneously embraced the Lt. Governor’s distinctive conservative holy warrior agenda while displacing him from the center of the battle in the eye of the public. Battling shoulder to shoulder also allows for an inopportune shove at just the right moment. Abbott’s Facebook narrowcast solo signing of SB4 – the likely centerpiece of every Republican incumbent who needs to mount a primary campaign next year – demonstrated Abbott’s willingness and ability to make such plays despite the griping of allies and reporters. Arguments about whether this play came from weakness or strength are increasingly irrelevant.

The relative political and institutional positions of the big three in this moment also inform the likely acceptance of something well less than the entirety of the special session call. The Governor, ensconced atop the executive branch, can claim credit for whatever successes emerge, and blame the failures on the legislative branch. Even if the dependent clauses in his statements single out the House, to the casual listener some of the criticism inevitably also falls on the Senate – and the Lt. Governor. For his part, the Lt. Governor can cast blame on the leadership of the House for disappointing him and the Governor, as well as conservatives across Texas. Both will appeal to the voters' role in passing final judgment in next year's Republican primaries. Speaker Straus will affirm his view that he followed the will of the body to focus on the important business of the state, and to have avoided dangerous and divisive measures – and likely do what successful Speakers have done for time immemorial: get out of the limelight as much as possible.

These matters of positioning among the Big Three will be familiar to watchers of the legislature, most of whom will have their own spin on what sometimes amounts to an Austin version of Kremlin watching. But however the particulars are parsed, in the context of widespread conservative satisfaction with legislative performance during the 85th and a lack of evidence of clamoring for more action outside the headquarters of the usual group of conservative funders, brokers, and advocates, both the origins of the special session and its tepid product are rooted more in the politics of the elite players than in public demand.