Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: A Texas House speaker’s first act is to put together a list

Texas House members made Dennis Bonnen their speaker this week. When he names committees in the early days of the session, they'll get their first hard look at what kind of leader he is.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen in the House Chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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Correction appended.

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Now that Dennis Bonnen has been elected speaker of the Texas House, his first big decision will show the rest of us who is in power and who is not.

In a few days — the timing is purely up to him — Bonnen will make committee assignments, telling the people who elected him what they’ll be doing for the next 20 weeks.

It sounds simple enough, right? But it’s one of those leadership powers that looks administrative but is purely — and dangerously — political.

The announcement of those assignments will be the moment when members find out the difference — if there is one — between their expectations and reality. It functions as a kind of ranking of the House, based on politics, expertise, friendship, ability, demographics — and the goals of the speaker himself.

The House has more than three dozen committees, including four jewels: Appropriations, which writes the state budget; Ways & Means, the source of tax laws; Calendars, which decides what bills reach the full House for consideration, what bills don’t, and in what order; and State Affairs, which handles a range of issues that includes many of the most controversial and consequential bills that come before the House.

That’s not where all of the power is; other committees are important and some are genuine plums. Chairmanships are currency — sometimes almost literally, because some of them oversee issues dear to moneyed interests who can be generous come campaign season.

It’s a little like a parent actually coming out and telling the children which ones are the favorites.

That’s how the members will see it — as a sign of the new speaker’s priorities, intentions, friends and foes.

The rest of the political world will be looking for tendencies, and for mistakes. How do Bonnen’s picks signal his preferences on particular issues? How do his committees differ from those of his predecessor, Joe Straus? Will his be more or less like the Straus House? How much power is shared with the minority party — how do the Democrats come out? How diverse are the committees? Did urban, suburban or rural interests win or lose?

It all adds up to a very public initial political step that will, to some extent, set the tone for Bonnen’s speakership.

No pressure.

This happens in the Senate, too, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already presided over two legislative sessions, and his favorites among the senators are already known. One big shift has already occurred; state Sen. Charles Schwertner, after an allegation of sexual harassment, announced he wants to give up the chairmanship of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Before that news, all of last session’s chairs were returning to the Senate; Patrick could only name a new chair by taking out another one. Now he’s got one open committee and a chance for minor shuffling — unless, of course, he decides to bust one of the people he appointed two years ago.

Bonnen’s task, in that way, is a little easier. He hasn’t appointed anyone and the working assumption is that he won’t necessarily have the same lieutenants Straus had. It’s easy to find rumors about this committee or that one, but only Bonnen knows what’s going to happen. He started collecting members’ official requests for committee assignments this week, so he still has plenty of juggling ahead.

Two of those four big committees don’t have chairs. Byron Cook, who headed State Affairs, didn’t seek re-election. Bonnen himself was the chairman of the Ways & Means panel. Other panels are open, too, because of chairmen who didn’t return: Business & Industry, Elections, Environmental Regulation, Government Transparency & Operation, Insurance, Redistricting, and Urban Affairs.

Bonnen would have a lot of room to name new people and to move people around even if he wanted to stick with the committees Straus left behind.

That’s not the way it works. He’ll start from scratch, name his favorites and then start sending them bills to consider.

Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance was sometimes heartwarming, sometimes uplifting, all positive. Now it’s time to get going, and those committee assignments will offer your first real look at Dennis Bonnen’s House.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly included the House Committee on Defense and Veterans' Affairs in the list of committees with empty chairmanships.