Politics is the art of securing policy wins and balancing that ambition with concessions that can be given up in exchange. And the time crunch caused by Texas’ 140-day truncated legislative session means that the ability to pass legislation is finite. But it’s not simply legislative tallies on which sessions are judged.
And so, Phelan’s session, like any speaker’s, will be judged on those accomplishments versus the forfeits, and the way he shepherded the body through that five-month frenzy.
Both in the waning days of the 87th Legislative Session and since its conclusion, Phelan has faced a barrage of criticism stemming not only from sections of his left and right flanks, but from his counterpart across the rotunda.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick blasted Phelan on radio host Chad Hasty’s show Tuesday, saying, “By letting [Democrat lawmakers] leave and not passing Senate Bill 7, they made the Republican constituents unhappy.”
Democratic House members successfully killed the body’s priority election integrity legislation by staging a walkout to prevent a quorum just before the Sunday midnight deadline. Earlier that day, Phelan met with the House Democratic Caucus behind closed doors about the impending legislation.
Citing the death of other priority bills such as a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, big tech censorship, and the transgender sports bill — all of which were killed by Republican hesitation and Democratic chubbing — Patrick continued the barrage.
“There’s a pattern there that says he didn’t want to upset the Democrats. So, [Phelan] gave them a chance to walk out and they did.”
In an interview Thursday with CBSN, Phelan said the conference committee’s election omnibus bill, which the Senate “was in charge of drafting,” “had flaws all throughout” — 12 vulnerabilities to points of order, to be precise.
Phelan’s critics to his right say that the speaker and his lieutenants — chief among them Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), chair of the powerful Calendars Committee that sets bills for hearings on the House floor — did not prioritize those pieces of legislation and others on conservative priority lists, putting them before the body right up against deadlines.
Often cited from that casualty list is the prohibition of gender modification on children which perished on the second reading deadline for House bills as well as at that chamber’s deadline for Senate bills.
The Beaumont Republican has also been blasted by progressives for allowing conservative bills like the election integrity legislation, constitutional carry, and the Heartbeat bill to even make their way through the legislative process.
However, among those “feathers in his cap” are constitutional carry and the Heartbeat bill — both of which will become law and of which the former originated in the House. Speaking from the dais on the final day of session, Phelan also touted the body’s passage of bills like the state’s budget, electricity overhaul, rural broadband expansion, telehealth legislation, and one-year extension of the children’s health insurance program under Medicaid.
“Speaker Phelan led Republicans to pass the heartbeat bill banning abortions once a heartbeat is detected, constitutional carry and a spending limit of inflation plus population growth — all measures conservatives sought for many years,” Burrows told The Texan in a statement.
“The Republican Caucus delivered on these, and many more, conservative priorities. Your House Republicans delivered.”
Others include the restructuring of the underwater Employees Retirement System of Texas that is drowning in $14.7 billion in unfunded liabilities, the Second Amendment sanctuary bill, and punishments for cities that cut police department budgets.
In all, 587 of the total 1,070 bills sent to the governor’s desk originated in the House — somewhat less than each of the previous three sessions, the mark of a session truncated by coronavirus and bogged down by the February winter storm.
According to those in the Capitol, Phelan’s tenure was more laid back than predecessors, but the speaker still threw his weight behind priority legislation laid out in three slates: electricity, health care, and criminal justice reform.
Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), chair of the Transportation Committee, told The Texan, “[Speaker Phelan] did a great job making sure there was minority representation in the House — both with committee chairs and the roles outside those positions that many played.”
“The House ran efficiently, and the speaker did a great job listening to everyone’s concerns respectfully.”
Asked how he’d grade Phelan’s initial session as speaker, Canales pegged it at an “8.7 out of 10,” and added, “They were calling balls and strikes, and rules took precedence over everything else.”
Canales was among the Democrats who walked out on the final night to kill the elections omnibus bill, but he also co-authored the constitutional carry bill and spoke passionately in its favor. Phelan could have ordered the chamber doors locked and the truant Democrats returned to their posts but did not go that route — something Canales lauded.
“The other thing that is of extreme importance that I haven’t seen before,” Canales noted, “is that the parliamentarians got to do their job and the speaker didn’t interfere with their duties.”
Indeed, throughout the session, Phelan could be seen on the dais often conferring with House parliamentarians Sharon Carter and Hugh Brady.
That consultation, however, did not eliminate all moments of tension between chair and body. When Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) inquired about appealing the ruling of the chair on a point of order against his budget amendment, Phelan snapped slightly.
Slaton, one of two members who voted against Phelan on session’s opening day, told The Texan, “On the smaller items, [Speaker Phelan] was good. He didn’t punish members individually — I voted against him, but I still got a couple bills passed through the chamber.”
That’s a marked difference from at least one of his predecessors, former Speaker Joe Straus, whose retributive tactics spawned a whole group of lawmakers hellbent on being a thorn in his side.
Slaton, however, does not regret voting against Phelan for the House’s highest position and said he is likely to do so again unless something changes.
“The reason I voted against him is the same problem that’s there today: I didn’t see any type of commitment to passing GOP priorities and I didn’t think the Democrats should have a say in the speakership,” Slaton added.
Lawmakers differ on the barometers by which to judge a session. Some, like Slaton, are laser-focused on passing the Republican Party of Texas’ legislative priority list, while others look to a broader base of legislation.
About his barometer, Slaton stated, “We got constitutional carry, and the Heartbeat bill — while that wasn’t exactly what we wanted, that’s great — but then we let the election integrity bill die on the last night. That should have happened sooner.”
The biggest failure, in Slaton’s mind, was the inability to move the gender modification bill — an effort he propelled early and often.
Going forward, Slaton said Phelan may still earn his vote, but his objections still apply — “With nothing changing, it’s going to be difficult for me to justify that.”
Rep. James White (R-Hillister), a six-term House member whose district sits directly above Phelan’s and chaired the Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee this session, lauded Phelan’s first session in an interview with The Texan.
“Speaker Phelan has done an excellent job — when you’re elected speaker, you’re elected speaker of the Texas House, not necessarily of the Texas Republicans or of southeast Texas,” White stated.
Likening the position to a football coach, White said Phelan succeeded at getting the legislature in a good position to finish through and deliver on the tasks they were sent to complete.
“The speaker has put the right personalities and skill sets in the right positions as committee chairs,” he added.
To White, Phelan’s shepherding through of conservative legislation like the Heartbeat bill and constitutional carry, but also more middle-of-the-road legislation such as criminal justice reforms, will enable the Republicans to preserve their majority for next session — hoping to follow through more on similar efforts.
Looking forward to the two looming special sessions, White stated that he’s conversed with the speaker, emphasizing, “We need to have a big win, in one of those specials, on property taxes.”
White motioned at the $16 billion in federal coronavirus aid, saying he hopes at least half of that is put toward buying down property taxes — an idea that is prohibited within the congressional strings attached, but which is being challenged in court.
Asked if there is any chance at Phelan losing his speakership down the road, Canales said, “Not one bit, he’s proven that we have a leader that’s willing to do what’s right and let the process work rather than bending to the political will of the governor and lieutenant governor.”
Continuing the displeasure with his counterpart in an interview with WBAP radio, Patrick commented on Phelan’s future, stating, “That’s up to the House. In fact, anything the Senate says — or I say — they’ll do just the opposite, so I’m staying out of that.”
But it takes a lot more than intraparty and inter-capitol conflict to oust a sitting speaker — just ask Phelan’s three most recent predecessors.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.