Logic by Craddick
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Circular reasoning may lead to an exit.
By DAVE McNEELY
State Rep. Jim Pitt has the best phrase for how Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, his former ally, thinks of his position: “a divine speakership.”
Craddick, speaker since 2003, staved off an effort to remove him at the end of the regular session in May, with an argument straight out of Catch-22.
His speakership can’t be challenged because he was:
•Elected at the beginning of the regular legislative session, which he says means he’s there for two years, even though the Texas Constitution doesn’t say so,
•And he can’t be removed before that,
•Because there’s no such thing as a motion to vacate the chair,
•And if there were, he wouldn’t recognize anyone to make that motion, so
•The only way to remove him is to impeach him,
•But he’d also have to recognize someone for that motion,
•Which he won’t,
•And his power to refuse recognition is absolute and not subject to appeal,
•So there. (Sound of Bronx cheer)
Since June, critics, led by Republican House members, have plied Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott with arguments about Craddick’s claimed powers. Fort Worth Rep. Charlie Geren joined five Republican colleagues in asking if Craddick could be impeached or voted out by a majority of the House. And if he can be voted out by a majority, “would a rule giving the Speaker the power to prevent a removal vote violate the Texas Constitution?”
Craddick countered that his power of recognition or non-recognition is absolute. He got help on that from his new parliamentarian, former Austin legislator Terry Keel, whose predecessors resigned over Craddick’s actions in May. (The Texas Progressive Coalition, a group of Democratic-oriented bloggers, then responded with a brief saying that Keel, in representing Craddick, is “in direct conflict with his other clients, the remaining 149 members of the Texas House of Representatives.”)
Craddick says his powers are virtually equal to those of the lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the Senate. That’s mostly an exaggeration. The lieutenant governor is elected statewide, for a four-year term. The speaker is chosen by House members, elected every two years by constituencies 1/150th the size of the lieutenant governor’s. Both leaders’ powers are set for the most part by rules OK’d by their respective chambers.
Craddick and his minions say it’s up to the House to govern itself, and the attorney general should stay out of it.
Pitts, a soft-spoken, gracious representative from Waxahachie, pointed out to Abbott that while the Texas Constitution says the House “shall” pick a speaker when it assembles, it is silent on whether House members could vote to remove him or her later on.
No constitutional or House rules “preclude the House from selecting a new presiding officer if the office of Speaker is declared vacant,” Pitts wrote. “Moreover, none of these provisions support the contention that the House may not create a vacancy in the office of speaker by a simple majority vote. In other words, inherent in the right to select a presiding officer is the right of the body to remove that presiding officer. ...”
Pitts noted that several briefs emphasize “that neither the House rules, House precedent, the Texas Constitution, nor parliamentary law were ever intended to create a divine speakership that undermines the power of the members to remove their presiding officer.” Any other view, he wrote, could lead to abuses and “shield that presiding officer from the ultimate form of accountability.”
Former House Speaker Rayford Price also submitted a brief, saying House members have the power to remove the speaker.
Predictions are that Abbott, who has until Dec. 15 to issue his opinion, will punt the ball back to the Legislature. But that could be a political liability, if it’s read as siding with Craddick.
Craddick’s supporters may find that alliance a problem. Voters, already increasingly dissatisfied with President Bush, could see Craddick’s brass knuckles as a huge issue in 2008 House races.
Those on Craddick’s team may face primary challengers pledging to end the heavy-handedness of Craddick and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Democrats are hoping Craddick will survive, at least through the November 2008 election. They need a good punching bag.
In 1971, Craddick was a House member attempting to investigate embattled House Speaker Gus Mutscher. The motion was out of order, Mutscher ruled.
Thirty members, including Craddick, voted to appeal the ruling — earning the name “The Dirty Thirty.” They lost the appeal — but at least Mutscher allowed a vote.
It’s an interesting question, Pitts wrote, whether the 1971 Tom Craddick “would have considered the legal position that he so fervently articulates today as rational or reasonable.”
Veteran Texas political writer Dave McNeely can be reached at email@example.com.
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