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Could We Have a Consensus Speaker of the House?
There’s precedent at the state level—just look at Texas’s Joe Straus.
THE RACE IS ON to succeed the ousted Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. So far it looks like the main contenders will be Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, although Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma is reportedly also thinking about jumping in, some other names have been bruited about, and several members of Congress have called for former President Donald Trump to be selected for the position.
The idea deserves serious consideration. The thought of both parties sharing power may feel like a fantasy in the hyperpartisan halls of the U.S. Capitol, but many members of Congress come from states where there have been bipartisan speakers in their state legislatures for decades—including in some highly partisan of states. And right now, at a time when it feels like the extremist wings are driving the political debate, we could use a good consensus.
We could use a Joe Straus.
Back in 2009, a handful of Republicans in the Texas House were frustrated enough with the strong-arm tactics of then-Speaker Tom Craddick to consider ousting him. Eventually these “ABCs”—Anybody But Craddick—united with 64 Democrats to make a majority and put in power their unity candidate: Joe Straus of San Antonio.
Straus, a Republican, was little known at the time, and had only served two terms. But the conditions were ripe: The Texas Democratic Party had done well in the 2008 election, the Texas House was narrowly divided, and Craddick’s iron-fisted style had made too many enemies of one-time allies. Representatives just wanted someone who would let the House run its own affairs—and plenty of Republicans were eager for a business-oriented moderate who wouldn’t pressure them to take extremist positions.
Straus himself explained the dynamic this way: He had two sets of constituents—first, the voters who elected him to office back home in San Antonio, and second, the members of the House, all 150 of whom elected him speaker. And he planned on looking out for all of their interests—both Democrats and Republicans.
This gave him different political incentives than, say, the governor or lieutenant governor, both of whom were elected in statewide races. Pushed by the hardcore partisans who turned out for Republican primaries, Texas has watched those positions slip further into extremism. Straus, on the other hand, had the freedom to protect the House from outside pressure and allow members to, in the words of a predecessor, longtime Speaker Pete Laney, “vote your district.”
After all, Texas is a big place. Republicans in Amarillo are different from those in Houston suburbs. And Democrats in downtown Dallas don’t always agree with those in the Rio Grande Valley. For a long time, Texas Monthly listed politicians from three different political parties: liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats, and Republicans. Individual members felt they needed the flexibility to cross the aisle without feeling pressure from the speaker—and they also needed leadership that won’t force them to take hard votes on bad bills.
Straus made it his job to fulfill that vision.
He rejected the extremist anti-trans legislation that was opposed by Texas business groups, demanded honest assessments of the state budget, and boldly called for the legislature to tackle gun violence.
Not everyone was happy. Plenty of Republicans did not want to share power with their political opponents. Some evangelicals weren’t comfortable being led by a Jewish speaker. Democrats were dissatisfied when Straus let conservative priorities make their way to the floor, such as a “show-your-papers” anti-immigration bill that was opposed by local law enforcement. I remember hearing one liberal activist point out that, for all the complaints about Speaker Craddick, the most extreme anti-abortion bills were passed under Straus.
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But at a time when the U.S. House of Representatives can barely function, and Republicans aren’t able to pass bills that would get through the Senate, you’ve got to wonder whether there’s a handful of moderate Republicans willing to join with Democrats to fill the speaker’s chair in the same way that Matt Gaetz and a handful of extremists worked across the aisle to vacate it. And you’ve got to wonder at the same time whether there’s a way to convince Democratic members to line up behind a moderate Republican speaker to stave off the prospect of an intensely partisan Republican speaker. Because there are plenty of challenges facing our nation—like balancing the budget and passing immigration reform—on which broad consensus in the middle could likely be found.
SURE, WASHINGTON IS NOT AUSTIN. But states other than Texas have (or have had) bipartisan power-sharing in their legislatures. In fact, Peltola’s Alaska is currently operating under a state Senate where moderate Republicans have aligned with Democrats on a platform of compromise, a situation apparently made possible by the state’s new ranked-choice voting system: Rather than rely on low-turnout partisan primaries, Alaskans get to select their preference for candidates from all sorts of political parties. Candidates with the broadest appeal rise to the top, and the majority really does win.
All across the country, gerrymandering and primaries only work to reward the worst instincts of partisanship—promoting chaos and punishing cooperation. We need more basic reforms on redistricting and voting systems to ensure our republic continues to reflect the values of cooperation, compromise, and political diversity as argued for in Federalist No. 10.
Madison wrote that while “factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States” the sheer size of our nation would make them “unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
But the world has changed, and the arsonists have found the way into Congress. As we tackle the problems of partisan primaries and gerrymandering, a bipartisan speaker would be the firewall our nation needs to preserve our democracy. It is time for Washington to find its own Speaker Straus.