On October 22, 2019, embattled Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen announced he would not seek reelection. Before this announcement, Bonnen had survived months of scandal and negative media attention. Bonnen had survived at least 24 members of his own party calling for his resignation. Bonnen had even survived a contentious meeting of his own Republican House members which resulted in a public, written condemnation of his behavior.
At 9 p.m. the night before Bonnen’s announcement, five of his closest allies announced they were withdrawing their support. Why was the withdrawal of these five men the proverbial straw that broke the Speaker’s back? Four of them were House committee chairmen appointed by Bonnen himself.
At the beginning of each legislative session, the House Speaker assigns all House representatives to serve on various committees — the more important and powerful the committee, the more plum the assignment. The most powerful assignments are the committee chairmanships. Each piece of legislation must wind its way through a series of committees before potentially coming to the floor for a vote. The chairmen and chairwomen have the most power to alter or even kill legislation.
Some committees are more powerful than others. The Speaker typically doles out chairmanships of the most powerful committees to his closest allies — those he can trust to enact his policy and political agendas and especially to those he can trust to have his back, so to speak. This creates a system where the most powerful members of the House owe that power to the Speaker.
Where political power goes, money soon follows. Donors, particularly political insiders like Austin-based PACs and lobbyists, understand that whether their preferred legislation lives, dies, or gets gutted rests in the hands of the committee chairperson. And those lobbyists and PACs are not shy about making donations to the campaign accounts of the men and women with power.
We compared the average value of the contributions to the top five most powerful committee chairmen in the House to the average value of the contributions of the rest of the House members. Specifically, we compared donations to the Chairmen of the House Calendars, Appropriations, Ways & Means, State Affairs, and Public Education Committees to the donations to the rest of the House members. Typically the most important, most high-profile pieces of legislation end up before these committees.
What we found was astounding:
|2015 Chairmen||2017 Chairmen**|
|Chairmen of Top Five Texas House Committees:||$889,111*||$1,412,333|
|Other Texas House Members:||$358,855||$357,809|
|Percentage Advantage for Chairs:||248%||395%|
Our results showed that in the fundraising season after the 2015 legislative session, the chairmen of the top committees brought in on average 248 percent more than the rest of their colleagues. After the 2017 season, the chairmen of the top committees brought in a whopping 395 percent compared to the average amount brought in by their colleagues.
The months-long reluctance of these chairmen to abandon Bonnen demonstrates their allegiance to the man who appointed them. The chairmen have the most incentive to be loyal to the Speaker, not only because of the power that comes with the chairmanships but also because of the staggering fundraising advantage it provides. Although mounting grassroots pressure ultimately caused these men to desert Bonnen, it remains a cautionary tale about how much power rests in the Speaker of the Texas House.
Former Texas House Rep. Matt Rinaldi recently proposed a series of reforms to make the Speaker’s position less powerful, including changes related to the appointment of committee members and chairmen. In the aftermath of the scandal with Speaker Bonnen, and in light of the power and money that comes along with a chairmanship, it might be time for Republicans in the House to consider some reforms to the appointment process.
Join us as we bring you the answers you need about the money in Texas politics.
*Two of the five chairmen of the top committees retired after 2015 so this number reflects the average donations to the top three chairmen from that cycle.
**We have not examined the giving to the committee chairmen from the most recent 2019 session because their fundraising is ongoing.