One hundred and ninety-six years of experience is the amount of time nine outgoing members of Congress from Texas have compiled in the U.S. House of Representatives. The turnover comes thanks to six retirements, two upsets, and one failed Senate bid. According to Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, that’s an unusually high amount of institutional knowledge going out the door.
“I think this is going to be an inordinate hit from a state, going from very high influence to one that’s taking a back seat,” Strand says.
The Congressional Institute is a nonprofit designed to help members of Congress better serve their constituents. Before Strand’s time there, he also worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill for over two decades, so he’s seen the difference between the effectiveness of a new member of Congress and an experienced one.
“In terms of legislation offered on behalf of local communities, having someone who’s more advanced in the committee means it’s more likely to get done, ’cause you need a little power to get anything done of significance,” Strand says.
Take an example from Texas, in the state’s 11th Congressional District: it’s a big chunk of land that extends from just west of Fort Worth all the way past Midland and Odessa. The district is represented by Mike Conaway, a Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and who won his election last night by over 60 percentage points. Part of his job is to write the Farm Bill – a massive piece of legislation that governs rules about crop subsidies, regulations, research initiatives, as well as food stamps and other nutritional programs. Strand says having a Texan in that job is a big advantage.
“Having someone from Texas on that committee, especially as the chair of the committee, gives them number-one say. First of all, because he’s the one who writes the bill and presents it to the committee, but second of all, because other members on the committee who want things don’t want to offend the chairman,” Strand says.
Now, with an incoming Democratic majority in the House, Conaway will not hold a chairmanship in the next Congress, but neither will any of the freshman representatives. Newcomers have no chance of chairing a committee right off the bat; they don’t have the political clout, the know-how, or the time. Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, served in the House for 28 years, and describes how being new to Congress can be overwhelming at first.
“Well, the things that stick with me is you are overwhelmed with so many meetings, so many volumes of stuff you have to read to be up to date on hearings coming up. When you are a new one, it’s going to take time,” Ortiz says.
He says one of his biggest accomplishments for his district was a highway project.
“Interstate 69 is one of ‘em,” Ortiz says.
Part of the interstate runs through Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley, but originally, the plan was for it to run westward, from Corpus to Laredo.
“Which, it wasn’t bad. But like I told my constituents and I told many friends, I don’t represent Laredo. I represent the Valley,” Ortiz says.
This was in the early 2000s, and it took Ortiz about seven years of working the system to get the interstate moved in a way that was more advantageous to his district. He reached across the aisle to Texans he’d known for years including then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Houston. He tapped into relationships he’d cultivated for years, bringing representatives down to his district to explain why the interstate needed to run through the Valley. In the end, he got what he wanted. But he says it’s not the kind of thing he could have done earlier in his career.
“No, it takes time. It, it … takes time,” Ortiz says.
And in Congress, time is what Texas is losing. The election showed that many voters, both in Texas and nationwide, preferred to bring in fresh blood at the expense of long-tenured lawmakers. But it does have consequences, particularly for a state with a Republican-heavy delegation in a now-Democratic-led House of Representatives. Sean Theriault is a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“There are just far fewer Texas representatives in Congress who are Democratic than who are Republican. So, the number of people who are rising through the ranks and ultimately becoming committee chairs, Texas is going to be hurt because we just have fewer Democrats in the Texas delegation than we used to,” Theriault says.
Right now, Texans chair seven committees in the U.S. House of Representatives – the most of any state. It’s unclear how many chairmanships Texans will hold in 2019 when Democrats assume control of the House, but the figure promises to be much lower.