As experienced Texas congressmen retire, will the state’s sway in Congress decline?
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, was in Congress for over a decade before she narrowly won a bid to become the top Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee last year.
That's about how long it takes to achieve a position like that, especially on the committee that decides government spending. Her placement there was a big win for Texas Republicans in the House, giving one of their own a considerable amount of clout.
But the number of Texans in Congress with Granger's experience has been shrinking dramatically in recent years. This year, six of Granger's GOP colleagues from Texas, including five who would have had at least a decade of experience if they'd remained in their seats past the next election, announced retirement plans — a run for the exits that Democrats termed the "Texodus."
House members often come and go, leaving room for new leaders to represent the interests of millions of Texans. In recent years, however, the turnover has been high. That, combined with Democrats taking control of the House, has diminished the overall influence Texans carry in Congress.
“Regardless of who in the party is in control, the fact that these members are leaving, obviously that weakens the influence of the delegation,” said Richard Cohen, chief author of The Almanac of American Politics, adding that the delegation "has been known to carry its weight."
The Democrats flipping the House in 2018 was perhaps the biggest blow to Texas' clout in Congress. Before Republicans lost the majority, Texans had six committee chairmanships. Now they have one: U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. And the wave of new Democrats washed out some powerful Texas Republicans.
Then-U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee from 2012 to 2018, lost his seat to Democrat Lizzie Fletcher. Former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Dallas, was chairman of the House Rules Committee when Democrat Colin Allred defeated him. (Sessions is seeking to return to Congress in 2020, running for a different seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan.)
Another Republican, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, chaired the the Science, Space and Technology Committee before he retired and Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy took his seat. It will be years until Fletcher, Allred or Roy is in a position to chair a committee — if they stay in Congress long enough.
Soon, the state will lose even more powerful members. Among those retiring after 2020, three Texans are the top Republican members of House committees: U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Amarillo, is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee; U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee; and U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, is the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee.
Only two ranking members from Texas remain: Granger, who is facing a tough 2020 primary challenge, and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who is ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. If the House flips back to Republicans in 2020, those Texans would become chairs of their influential committees.
But while powerful members have departed, some of the freshmen who replaced them have begun to make their marks. Democrats, in particular, have enjoyed the fruits of joining Congress while in the majority. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, has emerged as a leading voice on immigration and border security issues, largely due to her district's location along the border. After the resignation of U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, D-California, Escobar assumed the position as freshman representative on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team — a sign that she's in good standing with party leadership.
"It's important that when decisions are being made that the voices on the table be representative of the diversity of our caucus," Escobar said.
And then there’s U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, who won his seat after the retirement of U.S. Rep. Ted Poe. Around Washington, some have dubbed the outspoken and young former Navy SEAL as "the future of the GOP." (That honorific had once been bestowed on another Texas Republican, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, who is among the six Texans retiring this year.)
More shakeups in the Texas delegation could come in the 2020 elections. The filing period is open for the 2020 elections, and multiple incumbents still haven't turned in their paperwork, though they still have until Dec. 9. Democrats are hoping to knock off another three incumbents with years of experience, while Republicans hope to regain the two seats they lost in 2018.
Many of the toughest political battles will happen in the Texas suburbs, which used to be majority white and safely Republican.
“They’ve got a problem,” Cohen said. “There are many reasons Republicans, especially in the House, that they’ve become reluctant to separate themselves from Trump. Or if they want to separate themselves from Trump, they are either retiring or have contested seats.”
2019 Texas Tribune