Texas loses congressional clout as the Democrats retake the House
An extraordinary period of Texas Republicans’ congressional clout is about to end with retirements and the Democrats’ House takeover, relegating committee chairs to minority status next year in a Congress that could be straitjacketed by gridlock and investigations.
Five Texas GOP chairmen will lose their posts in January: Kevin Brady of The Woodlands who heads the Ways and Means tax-writing panel; Michael McCaul of Austin, chairman of Homeland Security; Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, who heads Armed Services; and Michael Conaway of Midland, chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
Rep. Pete Sessions, the Dallas congressman who heads the Rules Committee - a key cog in the flow of legislation - lost his seat to Democrat Colin Allred, a former professional football player.
Adding to the power outage, Science Committee chair Lamar Smith of San Antonio and Financial Services chair Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, who toyed with the idea of running for House Speaker several years ago, announced their retirements long before the election.
Brady, who engineered passage of the Republican tax bill, said the onus will be on Democrats to avoid gridlock on spending and tax matters.
“Democrats, to get anything done, they’ll need to work with Republicans,” he said. “So, any extreme liberal agenda items, they’re already dead on arrival. We’re very interested in finding common ground if Democrats are serious about governing, and not just attacking President Trump.”
After three years of helping shape the Republican tax cuts that most GOP lawmakers ran on this fall, Brady will now be sidelined in the minority, only able to block Democratic initiatives by denying Republican votes.
“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved,” he said, “from helping negotiate the end of the ban on oil exports, to making the research and development tax credit permanent, and the first tax reform in 30 years. I’m proud of those achievements and I’m going to keep working on those issues.”
One item that is unlikely to go forward: President Trump’s election-season promise of an additional 10 percent income tax cut. “That was contingent upon the House and Senate staying in Republican control,” Brady said. “But I’m going to continue to push for further middle-class cuts.”
All told, the number of Texas committee chairs will plummet from seven to one — Dallas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is scheduled to take over the reins of the Science Committee.
San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro will become chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has exhibited increasing influence in the Democratic caucus. Castro was in line to take over the 31-member alliance no matter who won House control.
House Democrats have scheduled leadership elections on Nov. 27, a week later than planned, apparently after pressure from the caucus to give members time to figure out what they want to do in the new Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to return to her position as House Speaker.
Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar raced back to Washington on the day after the election even though the House is not in session to be part of discussions about priorities in the reorganizing House.
As a senior member of House Appropriations, Cuellar said he will be in better position now to block funding for the border wall that remains a major goal of the Trump administration.
Cuellar said he wanted to get back to Washington to offer advice on what Democrats must do if they want to hang on to House control.
“We have to temper the impulses of some of our members,” he said. “We can’t go extreme left like Republicans went extreme right. Americans don’t like extremes. That’s why they put us back in charge.”
As Democrats move in, Trump makes a threat
Out of power in the House since early 2011, Democrats relished the return of divided government. With Republicans bolstering their Senate majority, Democrats likely will be unable to advance significant policy initiatives even though President Donald Trump suggested on the day after the election that deals are possible, mentioning health care, the environment and infrastructure.
Democrats now can block Trump’s favored initiatives, including lavish funding for the border wall, while investigating the president and his appointees. That power was enhanced significantly three years ago when the GOP-run house changed the rule to give committee chairs subpoena power, defined as the ability “to issue legal orders requiring individuals to appear and testify, or to produce documents pertinent to the committee’s functions.”
Trump, while making overtures to Democrats Wednesday, also issued a threat to retaliate and adopt a “warlike posture” if they pursue investigations into his financial dealings.
Castro, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, contended that the Trump administration has escaped scrutiny. He would be expected to take part in an Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 elections, which the GOP-run panel ceased earlier this year.
Speaking on CNN Wednesday, Castro said: “When you’re in the majority and when you’re in divided government, part of the trick is that you have to make sure that the politics of things doesn’t overtake the substance of things. We shouldn’t be fighting with the White House or with the president just to fight. But at the same time, the American people deserve answer on these very important and consequential questions about who interfered with our democracy in 2016 and whether the president or his people had any role in that.”
NASA programs — especially Orion, which is focused on putting humans back on the moon — could be in trouble after Republican U.S. Rep. John Culberson lost his House seat to Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.
Culberson, a Republican from Texas, led the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA for the last four years. And he’s been a stanch advocate of science and human spaceflight over his nearly two decades in office, said Keith Cowing, editor of NASA Watch, a website devoted to space news.
“Nothing is better than to have an advocate for space science and exploration sitting on the committee in the House where NASA funding starts,” Cowing said Wednesday morning.
By contrast, Fletcher a Democrat and political newcomer, has largely remained mum about her feelings toward the space agency, even though many of the 10,000 people who work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston live in her district. But Culberson’s support of NASA was the subject of one of her attack ads during the campaign.
Culberson has been a strong supporter of missions to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that scientists believe has an underground ocean of water that could make it habitable. When NASA asked for funding for the Europa Clipper tasked with orbiting Jupiter’s moon and landing a probe there, he gave the agency far more than the ask -- $740 million compared to $265 million.
“John Culberson’s ideas are out of this world. He wanted NASA to search for aliens on Europa,” the ad stated, arguing that he didn’t do enough for local flood control projects. “For Houston, Lizzie Fletcher will invest in humans, not aliens.”
Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who is a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the powerful panel’s priorities should be revising the Republican tax bill to provide more middle-class benefits and pressing for release of Trump’s tax returns.
Doggett, whose district runs from San Antonio to Texas, said he believes the Texas influence in Congress recently was overrated.
“What good did all the clout that these Republican chairs from Texas had do for the people I represent in San Antonio and Austin?” he remarked. “The Rules Committee is where good amendments went to die.”
He added: “I think we’ll benefit greatly by having an overall change in Congress that can provide a little bit of accountability on Trump and the prospect of prescription drug relief for the people I represent.”
Simon Rosenberg, president of the NDN think tank in Washington and an adviser to House Democrats, said Democrats should stick with the three priorities they outlined in campaigns: improving health care; tackling the problem of dilapidated bridges and aging infrastructure; and cleaning up corruption in Washington.
“Democrats just spent hundreds of millions on television talking to voters about what they would do if elected. Now they have to go do it,” he said.
Staff writer Alex Stuckey contributed reporting from Houston.