Biden Cabinet absent of Texans, Lone Star political clout wanes

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WASHINGTON — From the White House to the halls of Congress, Texas has for decades wielded heavy clout in the upper echelons of national politics — until now.

For the first time since at least President Richard Nixon’s tenure, no Texans are serving in the Cabinet, the top tier of presidential advisers.

Considering that Nixon followed Texan Lyndon B. Johnson — who served as president, vice president and majority leader of the U.S. Senate — it’s been quite a comedown to watch President Joe Biden fill his top-level bench with players from other states.

At least it hasn’t been a complete shutout, with Texans nominated or confirmed to leadership positions with the U.S. Census Bureau, immigration enforcement and the Air Force.

But the state also has lost clout on Capitol Hill, where only one U.S. House committee chair hails from Texas: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who leads the Science, Space and Technology Committee. That’s down from seven committee chairmanships when the GOP controlled the House most of the past decade.

Things are tough in the U.S. Senate, too, where the state’s two GOP members are in the minority party and John Cornyn had to step down as whip, the No. 2 Senate Republican, at the end of 2018 because of term limits.

Clout gets measured in Washington because of the results it can yield. For Texas, it has produced tax breaks for the oil and gas sector, revived sales taxes deductions on federal tax returns (helpful to residents of Texas and other states without an income tax) and built large projects such as NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plant in Fort Worth.

Voting rights: Republicans counter Willie Nelson, Beto O’Rourke rally to support Texas Democrats in D.C.

Lost clout has consequences as well.

“Voters need to know how important it is to have Texans in power in Washington,” said Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor who is now an Austin-based lobbyist and a top adviser to national Democrats who control the White House and both houses of Congress.

Republican strategist John Feehery, a former top aide to GOP House leaders, including then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, put it bluntly: “When you lose clout in Congress and in the administration, your voice will be ignored in Washington.”

Having a Democrat in the White House dimmed prospects for Texas, where the Republican Party has held sway for almost three decades.

“As Texas has become more and more Republican, it has become less important to Democrats,” Barnes said. “We don’t have the Democratic bench as we used to.”

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, agrees. “Republican dominance in Texas since the late ’90s has left Texas Democrats with a thin bench,” he said.

Few Democrats have statewide stature, and there is limited opportunity to make a name on Capitol Hill, where the 13 Texas Democrats are outnumbered by 23 Republicans in the U.S. House.

Turnover in Congress has played a role as well.

“Texas is changing politically and growing more competitive, and that transition has left the state with fewer long-term members, and therefore without significant clout for the first time since the 1920s,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

“Gaining clout in Congress is like pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s a hard road up, and once it tumbles down, it is a long way back up again,” Rottinghaus said.

Cabinet empty of Texans

The number of Cabinet positions or their rank can change with each president, and Texans have served Cabinet roles in previous Democratic administrations — Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor, was President Barack Obama’s secretary of housing, and former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary.

Biden’s Cabinet consists of 15 chiefs of executive departments and nine Cabinet-level officials. Although none of those is from the state, three Texans have been tapped to take on significant responsibilities:

• Gina Ortiz Jones of San Antonio was recently confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of the Air Force. The former Air Force intelligence officer was an unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate for a vast border district, losing a close race in 2018 to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, and falling short in 2020 when it was an open seat.

• Robert Santos of Austin, a statistician who is vice president of the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, was nominated to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau and would be the first person of color to serve in that position. 

• Ed…



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